Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book: Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline

Powell's Books
Barnes & Noble
Becky Bailey, Ph.D. - © 2000

I consider myself something of an authority on parenting books, having read at least 25 of them. They seem to fall into categories, Tips and Tricks, Woah You Didn’t Already Know This Hype, Specific Problem, XYZ is the Reason Why Kids Today are Weird, Parenting Through Religious Teachings and finally, Learn to Behave Positively, so you Can Teach Your Children to Behave Positively. Easy to Love is the only one I've read that falls into this last category. This is my third reading of this book in two years.

About two and a half years ago was the most difficult time during my relatively short time as a mother. I had been struggling with my then three-year-old since she hit the eighteen month mark. I was pregnant with my second, doubting my wisdom in birthing my first, and feeling an like an utter failure as a parent. I was so stressed I was actually having chest pains. I was yelling, swearing and otherwise being the exact opposite of what I wanted to be.  Despite my fervent attempts at control, or perhaps because of them, Danielle was misbehaving at every turn; defiant, (NO, YOU CLEAN IT UP!) hurtful, (I HATE YOU!) and quick to melt down at every setback. I’m getting anxious just writing this.

I tried everything: time-outs, punishing bad behavior by taking things away, rewarding good behavior, offering choices, and incentives. I also tried outright control tactics using all my power as MOM to control her. None of it worked, and none of us were happy.  I knew there had to be a better way. I searched and searched, and when I found this book,  the synopsis shone like a ray of hope into my desperate heart. I think I may have heard angels harmonizing.  Yes, yes this is us!

As I read I knew I found that elusive parenting philosophy for which I had been searching! Becky focuses on self-control, (for parents and children) and discipline as teaching rather than punishment. Kids develop in predictable ways, and no one is born knowing how to negotiate conflict. Some of us never learned. (Me!) As I grew I learned how to avoid most conflicts and internalize the rest. (Awesome strategy, no?) In my mind conflict was BAD. (No wonder I used to fantasize about running away to the mountains to be a hermit.) In actuality conflict is GOOD, because it is an excellent opportunity for learning and teaching. 

Instead of giving me advice on how to manipulate and control my children, it taught me how discipline and control myself, so I could then be an effective teacher for my children. Every time I teach my girls how to negotiate through a conflict I feel more confident negotiating my own conflicts. It taught me how to assertively say “no” and be heard without being hurtful. It taught me to be kind to myself when I make mistakes and give myself credit for my good intentions so that I could see my children's true (good) intent, and be kind with them when they make mistakes. Then I guide and practice with them what to do instead. I learned how to turn off the “punitive self talk” (Amy, that was really stupid. What's wrong with you?) that was programmed into me, so I can also resist hurling the plethora of terrible phrases I have stored away at my children. It taught me that the gift of controlled parenting that I give my children, I also give myself. I feel like I’m finally going through and throwing out my growing-up baggage rather than handing it down to them.

Easy to Love can get a bit confusing with Becky's Seven Powers for this and Seven Basic Skills for that and GAMES and PEACE plans that don’t fit perfectly with what you’re supposed to remember. However, if you take it slow and read word to word, stopping to absorb and mentally practice what she’s saying, you’ll get it.

This book is the exact opposite of a quick-fix, it takes years and multiple reading before everything really start to sink in. Becky stated that for her personally it took about five years before the processes and words felt natural, and came to her mind without thinking hard first. I was discouraged initially, and then thought, I could be the same frustrated, ineffective parent I am now in five years, or a more relaxed, happier version of myself in five years.

Here is an example of a personal situation to which I applied Becky’s teachings.

Marker Mayhem! 

Danielle is coloring with markers at her kid sized table in our front room. Gabi comes up and tries (in normal toddler fashion) to grab the marker right out of Danielle's hands. Danielle shouts, “NO GABI! THAT’S MIIINE!! MOOoooooOOMM, Gabi is trying to take my marker!!!”

Gabi starts stomping her feet and adds to the cacophony, “I neeeeed it! Give it to Gabi!”

Before reading this book (or on an off day today) I would have handled it one of two ways:

Tact 1. Go after Danielle because she's older and therefore less crazy.

Me: “Danielle, can you share your marker with Gabi?”
Danielle: “No! Noooo! I need it to finish my horse picture!” Predicting that I’m going to coerce her she digs in. “I don’t want her to use my markers!”
Me:  I'm getting frustrated at this point, and my brains are becoming scrambled by all the ambient screaming: “Danielle, you need to learn to share! Gabi just wants to color with you! Why is that such a terrible thing?! Give her one of the other markers that you’re not using.”
Danielle: “NO, NOOOOO! I don’t want her to use my markers!!” “Gooo away GABI!” she practically spits out.  Gabi ratchets her displeasure up a notch.
Me: Feeling desperate I say, “Gabi, lets you and me go read some books!”
Gabi: “No, no! Color! Markers! Maaaaarrrrrkers!”
Me: “Danielle, share with Gabi or the markers are mine.”
Danielle: “No!!!!” 

I take all the markers and shove them in the box and put them up on top of the fridge.

Danielle: “Good, you take them, just so long as GABI doesn’t get to use them. FINE!”
Me: *Long angry rant about sharing and sisterly love, and you should be so lucky to have so much and this is selfish behavior, etc, etc.*

Tact 2:  Go after Gabi because she's the offender.

Me: “Gabi, you may not snatch things from other people!” “Let go! Let gooo!” Pry her fingers off Danielle's marker.
Danielle: “Yeah, Gabi don't snatch!”
Gabi: “Maaaaaaarrrrker! I neeeeed it!”
Me: “Gabi, lets do something else. Do you want to read a book?”
Gabi: “No, maaaarrrrker!”
Me: “How about blocks? We can build a super cool tower!”
Gabi: “No, marker!”

Gabi runs back and grabs the marker again. Then we start with tact 1.

Results of doing things “my” way:
I’m angry and disappointed, Danielle is angry with me and Gabi, and Gabi is melting down. I did all the work resolving the conflict and nobody is feeling good.

This is how it plays out when I use Becky’s methods:
I dash in and then squat down to be eye level with the girls. Danielle starts in reiterating the problem, “She’s trying to snatch my marker!!”

I look at both girls and say, “Hold on, lets calm down, we can figure this out. Gabi, let go of the marker, I'll help you.” I help release her fingers.

Gabi: “Maaarrrker, I need it!”
Me: “Gabi, you wanted to color with Danielle so you tried to take the marker.”
Gabi looks at me and calms down a little. Danielle tenses up, expecting me to try to coerce her, I reassure her, “Don’t worry I'm trying to teach you guys.” “Gabi, if you want to color with Sister, please ask, don't take, taking can hurt Danielle's feelings. Try asking now. Say, ‘Danielle, can I have your marker?’”
Gabi: “Danielle, have marker?”
Danielle: “No! I’m using it! I need it to finish my horse picture.”
Me: “Say that to Gabi.”
She does, somewhat gentler, and Gabi starts to get upset again.
Me: “Danielle, try offering Gabi one of the other markers.”
Danielle: “Gabi, here you can use a different color.” (She really did this!) “But don't color on my picture!”
Me: “Danielle, can you show Gabi where to get paper?”
Danielle: “Gabi, come with me, the paper is over here.” Feeling magnanimous, she gets Gabi about fifty sheets.

Gabi sits down and starts coloring, Danielle says, “Wow, Gabi, I like your coloring.”  (No really—this happened!)

Result: We all learned something, our relationship is stronger and we are happy.

Instead of jumping in and solving the problem using my position of power, I taught them how to work through the conflict. Will they do this perfectly next time? Nope. Will they do it perfectly the next fifty times? Nope. But I see Danielle, (5 years old) getting it more and more, and trying out parts of it. She's much more relaxed when I come in to help with a conflict because she trusts me to guide her instead of coercing her. She has yet to put it all together, but heck, she’s only five! I don’t do it perfectly every time either, actually I mess up all the time. But when I do make mistakes, I’m kind to myself, and remind myself that I'll have lots of opportunities to practice and I'll get it eventually. I particularly feel good that they'll have these skills their whole life! Who has better odds of becoming a better baseball player, one who starts playing at five or someone who put a glove on her hand for the first time at thirty-five?

My littler one, Gabi, benefits from having clear firm boundaries, and a Mom who knows how to enforce them without being angry or spontaneously permissive because she doesn't have the will to fight on that particular day. With these tools, I know how to set and enforce boundaries in a loving way that teaches responsibility, self control, and conflict resolution.

The principles of this book can be difficult to absorb as you're learning them, however Becky provides many common real world examples that applies the teachings. At the end of the book she even provides a week by week schedule for practicing each particular skill.

I'm not a perfect parent, nor will I ever be, nor do I aspire to be. But I'm doing everything I can to give my girls the best chance at a happy life. In turn, I'm giving myself a happy life with my husband, and the two coolest little kids I've ever met.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: A World Without End

Powell's Books
Barnes & Noble

Ken Follett - © 2007

I loved Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and was thrilled when my husband found it has a sequel --of sorts. AWWE is also set in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge, about 150 years later in AD 1327. Several of the main characters are descendants of our heroes from Pillars.

Fourteenth Century Europe was a lively place historically speaking, but a deathly place for those that lived during that time. It was a time of the Black Death that ravaged Europe killing about half the population. It was also the beginning of the Hundred Years War between England and France. Like Pillars, this fictional story is threaded through historical events and beaded with factual details creating an utterly compelling tapestry that is at once lovely and horribly ugly. I was left with a feeling for what life was like for the people who lived (survived?) during those times. For the first time, I’m truly thankful to be alive in our modern world (medicine, judicial system, equality, welfare, economy) even with its many flaws.

Four pre-adolescent children, Gwenda, Merthin, Ralph and Caris witness a knight being ambushed by two men-at-arms in the forest near Kingsbridge village. With Ralph’s help the knight, Sir Thomas Langley, defeats the two men.  Merthin helps the knight bury what turns out to be the historical Fieschi Letter. The children’s fate remain intertwined from that day forward.

The beauty of this book lies in the depth of the historical research. Through each of the main characters we learn different aspects of daily life, social structures and economy. The many dozens of minor characters fill out all 1181 pages beautifully.

Through Merthin’s eyes we see the wonders of medieval architecture and Europe. He and Caris develop a maddening and sometimes just annoying romance that lasts the duration of the story.

Through Caris, who is the daughter of a prosperous wool merchant we learn about the economy and hierarchy of craftsmen of medieval England. Such as how the craft guilds operated (and from Merthin as well) and how apprentices were used. We also see how weavers and dyers worked and how their lives and their work are one. It is no wonder they were named for their livelihood, Caris Wooler, Merthin Builder, Dick Brewer, they are very much what they do.

Also through Caris we learn about the operation and hierarchy of the church and the medicine they practiced. The prevalent use of animal dung in poultices for “bringing forth the pus” and how patients were diagnosed with evil humours which were treated by bleeding pint after pint of their life’s blood. It was common for someone to be treated for a broken arm, then later die of some unknowable infection. Innovation in medicine was heavily discouraged and anyone who tried risked being charged with witchcraft or blasphemy. A priory hospital was a truly terrifying place.

Through Gwenda’s eyes we see what life is like for the daughter of a landless laborer. Summers of backbreaking labor in someone else’s fields and winters of picking pockets and enduring starvation. It is baby brothers and sisters dying because your mother didn’t have enough to eat to maintain her milk supply. After Gwenda marries we see life for a serf of a nobleman. How they could only grow what the lords declared, how they paid their taxes and were required to labor on their lord’s fields as well as their own. They essentially belonged to him and were treated as such. For the first time I understand why people flocked to the wilderness of the Americas simply for the promise of owning their own land.

Through Ralph’s eyes, we see the inner working of the nobility class and how one rises through the ranks. We also see the horror of King Edward III’s Battle of Crécy and Battle of Blanchetaque to reclaim Gascony. Ralph rises from squire to Earl of Shiring through equal parts dumb luck and ruthlessness.

By the story’s end in the year 1361, the bad guys are dead, the good guys are happy-ish and the buried letter is revealed, in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion.


A first I felt the characters were obvious derivatives of the Pillars characters. Merthin is clearly Jack, for whom I suspect the author has a particular affection. Caris is Aliena, Ralph is a cross between Richard and William... So much so, that I referred to Merthin as Jack in my mind to keep the names straight as I got to know the characters. However, by the end of the story, they succeeded in forming their own identity in my imagination.

He and I share a tendency to be overly verbose. However at least I am aware of it. He wastes page after page recapping past events. I DESPISE THAT! It feels condescending. He also takes an extraordinarily long time to get around to making a point; then he takes it and lays it on the sidewalk for you to step in over and over again. Dammit! I already stepped in that pile twice already! One particularly wet pile was hearing how Caris wouldn't marry Merthin for fear of spending her life as a slave to him and their future children. I think stating that once is plenty, and perhaps it could go unsaid and just revealed in dialogue or her actions. This is a technique called “show don’t tell” from which he could benefit using. As a wife and mother myself, I would have been able to sympathize with those feelings, if I wasn't so tired of wiping my shoes in the grass.

He occasionally uses modern idioms in dialogue and in his narration. In one case, he wrote of Ralph’s reluctance to invite his parents to live in with him at Tench Hall because they would “cramp his style”. (Another opportunity for use of the show-don’t-tell axiom.) A petty thing for sure, but my illusion of living alongside the people of medieval England shattered and suddenly here I was, in the 21st century reading a book. Guess I better go start a load of laundry.

Missed Opportunities for Redemption
I was disappointed when the two primary villains Godwyn and Ralph died. Their deaths were punitively gruesome, however I was hoping for some kind of growth or redemption. We spend a lot of time in each of their point of view’s and both while both did vile acts, I was still hoping for something meaningful to come out of their lives.

Godwyn, the Prior of Kingsbridge was not an evil man, but he was arrogant and prideful. I was hoping he would be stripped of those attributes through some sort of suffering or some first hand exposure to what people sacrifice for those they love. Then he'd live out his life in a very humble subservient way or perhaps he could have saved the day somehow to someone else's glory.

Ralph, I’m afraid had to go. However, I was hoping there would be some meaning to it. Throughout the story he is self-centered, self-serving and utterly without conscience. Once he discovers Gwenda’s son Sam is his own, there are flickers of something almost like love. I was hoping Follett would fan that into a flame inspiring Ralph to perhaps fall in love with Gwenda (true love, not ruthless-take-what-I-want love) and die in some altercation in which he sacrifices himself for Gwenda or Sam or both. He still dies, but we would see that man he could have been if something more than his killing instinct had been nurtured and praised.

At one point while ranting about some aspect of this book, Charley said, “I’m sorry you’re not liking this book.”

“What? No, I’m loving it!”

At times I was passionately angry with characters, his writing, the way the plot was going, because I was all in! I couldn't (willingly) put this book down. I would almost subconsciously make excuses to get a moment to read. “Took Gabs a little while longer to fall asleep tonight.” “Girls I’m a bit tired, I’m going to rest for a few moments and read a bit.” Those thousand pages were gone in a flash. The historic detail, the lifelike characters, the engaging story made the words come off the page and swirl into full color life, complete with fresh breezes lilting through trees full of the scent of grass and blossoms, stifling rooms reeking of shit and death, and the wonder of living in a time long past that is part of our composition today.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Powell's Books
Barnes & Noble
Richard Feynman - © 1985

A fascinating foray into the fun yet formidable physics of Mr. Feynman. Actually, this book is less about physics and more about the life of Nobel Prize Laureate, Richard Feynman. (Richard just rolled over in his grave; if you want to know why -- read this book!) Once I adjusted my expectations from education to entertainment, I absorbed every word. He was always interesting, at times very entertaining and despite his obvious genius he had an utter lack of pretentiousness and conceit that I previously assumed afflicted all venerated scientists. I closed this book wishing for more and feeling inspired to pursue my own adventures in curiosity. What could I achieve if, like Richard, I abandoned my Western culture imperative of accomplishment through suffering and played with my talents in ways I felt was fun?

Richard Feynman’s world was driven by curiosity, which in turn developed his enviable intellectual toolbox that unlocked the mysteries of the natural world to which it was applied. It might be unlocking the energy of plutonium for the Manhattan Project or perhaps the secrets of ant trails, or maybe, just for fun, he’d decipher a Mayan codex while his wife trudged up and down pyramids in the hot Mexican sun. Whatever it was, through his careful application of the scientific method and patience, locks opened for him and revealed their wares. His interests also extended beyond science.  Not surprisingly, he became something of a safe cracker.. again, just for fun. He learned to draw so that he could render the beauty of physics in pieces of art. (And apparently the naked female form, for fun.) He wanted to learn a language so he did so he learned Spanish, then converted it to Portuguese so he could spend time in teaching in Brazil. He like drumming, so he did; sometimes half naked --in the forest --alone --at night. In all things that captured his interest, including the romancing the ladies, Richard dove in with his energy and intellect and consistently “worked very hard” to get what he wanted. And he usually did.

Richard was rare among scientists in that his ego came secondary to the science and fun he was having doing it. He refused to become part of the social elite and followed his curiosity wherever it would take him. Except to LSD, although very curious about hallucinations he declined for fear he would “hurt the machine.” Luckily he came to know people who were developing a sensory deprivation tank and was able to experience hallucinations. But then again, who doesn’t? Pssht.

What I Took From This Book

Just For Fun!
In our Western culture there is an almost subliminal idea that we aren’t making valuable contributions or working hard enough unless we are suffering to some degree. It simply doesn’t work that way, we do our best work, our most valuable work, while having fun. I think it’s the only way to do great things. If you’re suffering, you will probably only do just enough to finish the job. If you’re very disciplined, you can probably even do a good job, but your unique potential will forever remain undiscovered because you’re not having enough fun to keep yourself interested. After the Manhattan project Richard feared he was burnt out on physics and his ideas were spent. Then he resolved to “play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.” The works that earned him a Nobel Prize “... came from piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

When I follow an idea that I find amusing, I find it easy to get into a state of flow, where I lose track of time and consciousness of my surroundings and produce my best work. When I am suffering in my work is driven by force of will and the result is stunted, unimaginative and lacking in curiosity, imagination and love. The clock ticks forward and ticks backward. Learning and life are supposed to be fun, that way we’ll keep doing it. Exceptional work is what we do while we’re having fun.

Learning By Rote
During Richard’s time teaching in Brazil he was horrified to discover that although his students were bright they understood nothing of what they were taught. Prior to his arrival, the students had the textbook memorized but could relate nothing of the physics they were learning to the natural world. For example, after discussing a section on polarized light that the students knew cold, he gave them some polaroid paper and talked about figuring out which way the light was polarized by using light reflected from the bay outside. The students were lost.

He discovered the textbooks did not encourage any real world experimentation. Sixty some years later, we’re not in much better shape. I learned most of my higher math in a similar fashion, I knew that the calculus I was learning could be applied to tell me how much material needed to fill a three dimensional space with a curve. I should be able to calculate the area under a curve or the max/mins of different story problem like setups. But, I couldn’t. I couldn’t do the math unless it was laid out like all the other equations I had previously solved in my math book. If it was slightly different, or I had to set up the equation from scratch, I was (am) lost. It didn’t matter, I still got my A and passed the course. I knew it was happening at the time and oh-welled it. Now a decade later after getting my degree, it’s all lost. Had I understood the concepts and could apply them, I probably could work back into it pretty easily. Now if I want to go back for my bachelor’s degree, I’ll have to re-do all my math credits and memorize it all over again. *shiver*

Don’t Trust the Experts
Experts are only experts because no-one has proved them wrong... yet. Although it sometimes doesn’t seem that way, science is still in its infancy. The more I learn, the more I realize how little we actually know about, well, everything.

After unknowingly using faulty data from prior experts in his experiments, Richard resolved to always redo the math himself ensuring the integrity of the experiments and verifying all the data he was going to use in the experiment he actually wanted to perform. I remember doing poorly on an physics exam in high school because the answer from the first question was used in the next and so on. My answer for number 1 was wrong and therefore snowballed and ruined my entire exam. Always go back to beginning, verify the work was done (sometimes even if it is your own) to your standards before getting rolling on your new work. Otherwise you may find yourself building a dream home on a rotten foundation.

In our world the results of scientific studies so often coincide with the interest group funding the study. Richard believed in giving all the information related to an experiment, those results that had positive, negative and benign ramifications. The activity is irrelevant, whether it be writing, manufacturing, engineering whatever, integrity is crucial to advancing our culture towards better, healthier futures, but unfortunately it is deemed a luxury rather than a basic right. The last paragraph says it the best: “So I have just one wish for you --the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you always have that freedom.” Indeed.

This book was based on a compilation of taped interviews with Richard, which after a while gave me the feeling I was sitting opposite him on a sofa sipping a drink; just reminiscing with a friend. Richard Feynman was not only a gifted scientist but incredibly interesting and down to earth, the only physicist that I could ever imagine hanging out with --for fun.  Although, I think I'd insist on paying for my own drink.

Ofey Art
See some of Richard's art at the Museum Syndicate website.