24 July 2008

Competition, again

I have written about Naomi’s lust for the win, her work at slowly loosening her grasp on winning as the ultimate goal. But what of the little brother, foil for all her games, yang to her yin, loser to her winning?

Last night after dinner we played Blokus, a fantastic board game which awakens the competitive nature of Naomi and brings it, roaring, into the room. Naomi nearly always wins this game (or comes second to me, which she thinks of as an allowable loss) in part because she’s good and in part because she bullies the other players into not blocking a future place she might eventually want to use. We have not played it since our new devotion to helping her be a better sport. Last night was a magnificent opportunity. When it came down toward the end of the game, it looked like a miracle might happen. “Mommy,” Aidan began, “do you think I might actually win this game?” This had never happened before. “I hope you win,” I told him, smiling. “I hope so too! I never ever ever win blokus!” And with every turn, the question, asked with more and more glee: “Do you think I’m going to win?!?” Naomi looked at his pieces and hers and snarled at him, prompting a conversation about the point of playing games in the first place.

Last week, at Aidan’s bowling party, Aidan and his three friends had one lane, and Naomi and Michael and I had the other. Michael was on fire, bowling strike after strike. Naomi and I, er, were not even toasty, bowling mediocre frame after mediocre frame. And on Aidan’s lane, one of his friends was excellent, one was lucky, and Aidan and his friend M were both, well, neither excellent nor lucky. By the last frame, they were neck and neck, tied for last. Aidan was dancing with anticipation and, in his dancing, bowled badly—but very cheerfully. M tossed the ball out in front of him in an utterly skill-free way and got 4 pins down. We reminded him he had one more shot at it. He repeated the casual toss too soon and the ball hit the gate that sweeps the pins between attempts. We fetched someone to come and get the ball, stuck listlessly on the lane. And one more shot, with me muttering under my breath a hope that he wouldn’t knock over more than 4 more so that Aidan could at least be tied for last on his birthday (not a noble thing to admit, hoping a 6-year-old does badly, but there you have it). And, slooowly, the ball crept toward the last 6 pins and, slowly, nonchalantly, bumped into them so that they slowly toppled over. M had won his third place slot with a seriously lucky spare. I shot a quick glance at Aidan to see how he was taking it. “That was cool, M!” he said, jumping up and down. “You won me after all!”

At dinner at the bowling ally afterwards I watched to see whether Aidan would downplay the scores or try to get us to cast our attention elsewhere. But no. He was cheerfully talking about how he almost won against M but that last ball prevented it. When others pointed out that perhaps you wouldn’t think of it as “winning” when you were vying for last place, Aidan smiled and shrugged. “We all had fun, though!” he said, and he was right.

So last night, with the thrill of victory right in his hands, Aidan was dancing with joy. “Are you excited about winning?” I asked. He nodded cheerfully. “But you don’t mind losing, do you?”

“Nope,” he said. “It’s really about whether you have fun that counts, not about who wins.” He looked down at the winning pieces in his hands and gave a sly smile. “Winning sometimes is pretty fun, though!” We talked about how Naomi was taking the loss at Blokus (not so well) and how she’d have taken the loss in bowling on her birthday if it had been her (we agreed it would not have been a pretty sight) and we wondered together what the difference between the two kids might be. I’m still wondering. Someday will they find the DNA pattern for competitive behaviour, the food I ingested lots of during my pregnancy with one of them but not the other? Or will each individual difference continue to be a marvel long into the future? I hardly know which of those futures to root for. But then, my favourite score is a tie…

21 July 2008


Each night I dream about packing, traveling, moving. I, who am a dreadful relitigator in the day, relitigate all night, trying to decide which plane to get on, which things to pack in the car, which house to move to. I agonise, run late, miss my chance—or take my chance and regret it, waking weeping. When, during the day, I teach about listening techniques, I tell people that if someone says something once, it is just a thing they’re thinking at the moment. If someone says something twice, you should probably pay attention. If someone says something three times, you had better stop what you’re doing and be sure you’ve heard the message—and the speaker knows you’ve heard the message. My subconscious is screaming the same message every night, and I keep trying to say I’ve heard it, but still, there it is, the next night. Maybe I need some kind of workshop on subconscious listening skills…

The thing that I’m noticing is that as I do live in New Zealand (at least during the day), I should probably be getting the work I need to sustain myself in New Zealand, too. This means that I have to do business development work, something that I’ve been afraid of for a long time. One of my Kenning partners said that on the skill/will matrix (skill= how well you do a thing and will= how much you want to do it well), I had both low skill and low will for developing business, and that is probably historically true. I’m trying to beef up my “will” though—trying to understand that I’m not going to make it here without some serious effort at networking, and so I pick up the phone and call to schedule coffee after coffee with colleagues of colleagues and try to make things happen.

It turns out though, that even when my will to do the work is raised, my skill at doing the work is still low. I am a wiz at the informational interview, in great measure because I find other people so interesting. But then there’s that point in the conversation where I have to connect the dots, to make it not just a conversation about what they do and what I do, but a conversation about what WE could do together. This is the part I do seriously badly.

For a rather brief time long long ago, Michael sold expensive and trendy yuppy-art from the kind of art store that sells the same lithographs in expensive shopping malls all over the US. They taught him to “assume the sale,” to ask not “Are you thinking of buying this?” but rather, “Which wall are you wanting to hang this on?” He knew that if he could just get someone to take the painting home for a “trial,” the odds were good the painting would stay in the house, and the cash would come back to the store (and the well-needed commission would go in his pocket). He hated this and wasn’t very good at it (thus the rather brief time of his employment at this shop), and we have teased about it for years, laughing knowingly at each sales person who walks up behind us as we ponder a decision and smoothly asks, “Would you like one or two of those?”

But now it’s me over expensive coffee at some café or government office. Which of your programmes would I be a fit for? Which of my skills would be most helpful to you in your business? Will you be ordering one or two of these workshops? On which wall are you wanting to hang me? I can almost not make the words come out of my mouth. I think I’d be better at selling lithographs.

And so I try to make the connections day by day, and I dream about starting again, night by night. This week I will meet with chief executives and HR directors. I will talk about coaching their managers and developing their leaders. I’ll drink excellent coffee and well-brewed tea. And sometimes I’ll catch sight of my reflection on the train window or a café mirror, and I’ll wonder who this grown up woman is, with ever-longer hair and ever-more wrinkles, and what she is doing looking out over sheep-dotted hills or rain-streaked New Zealand streets. Will I be having one country or two? On a wall in which country am I wanting to hang my hat?

(pictures today are randomly of our new front porch and Naomi digging in the garden one beautiful Sunday. You can't imagine how lovely the weather is here today--I challenge any of you in summer to match this bright sun and lovely temperature!)

17 July 2008

You've got mail?

Don't tell him I told you, but there is a newly-seven year old who is checking the letterbox each day hoping for birthday wishes. He is totally unpicky and would be happy for all letters with his name on them (he still appreciates email spam!). (He'd take email wishes too...)

(picture today is maybe my favorite Aidan picture ever, taken by Jim on the south island)

16 July 2008

Fun and games

Last week has loomed large in my calendar as a week when I was not going to be able to fulfill a wide variety of expectations globally (there were a variety of things people wanted from me in several different countries simultaneously, and I was going to disappoint them all and stay in New Zealand). I didn’t know how badly that would go, but somehow it ended up worse than I expected. That has kept me quiet and dealing with things around the world; the challenge I have found was to focus on the life I have here rather than the lives I don’t have here.

Because I stayed here for the winter holiday rather than heading overseas to one of the many important things calling me, I have been trying to squeeze my joy out of this at-home life. The kids have been home all week, and I’ve been doing some combination of trying to create work here, doing some work here, and dealing with things overseas. But more than anything I’ve tried to give myself permission to really hang out with these children, spend time with them, play games with them, and watch them together.

We’re cocooned in the cold weather. Many days it has been brilliantly beautiful, but it has often been quite stormy, and it’s as cold as it gets here (frost on the shaded valleys as I pass them on the train, mist rising as soon as the hot sun hits and melts the frost). Mostly the kids haven’t had friends over, either. Mostly it’s been just the three of us in the house. Ah, and we have been having glorious fun!

Perhaps the most fun, with the three of us in this TV-free, wintery house, has been the playing of games. Now, I get that we are not actually pioneers exploring the new world—we have sofas and electric blankets and double ovens. But there is something about the incredible low-tech experience of playing card games and board games that helps me be connected back through time to the parts of human history when so many things weren’t mediated by something that takes batteries or plugs in.

There are many things I love about these games. One of the most exciting is watching the way it has changed Naomi’s relationship to winning. For years, we have known that games are a tricky issue for Naomi. If she wins—which she very often does, no matter who she plays against or how hard that person tries—she is cheerful and pleasant, and the game-playing is enjoyable for all. If she loses, or if it looks like she will lose, she gets clipped and tight, and it goes downhill from there. This—plus the fact that Aidan wasn’t old enough for many games—has made game playing relatively rare in our house. This is all changing.

We have discovered the game “set” which is a joy—everyone can play, it’s good for the brain, and it’s super fun. But the pattern of Naomi’s continued, and that made the experience pretty unfun. We tried modifying the rules to play in pairs and still it was tricky. So we instituted a new rule—if Naomi began to forget that the game was a thing to be enjoyed and not to be won, the game was over. One warning and then the cards went away for a while. I had no idea whether this would work or whether we’d just be giving up the games, but somehow it has worked (it makes me wonder why I didn’t try it sooner—so simple a solution!). It isn’t just that Naomi is being threatened; she is really trying to find her way to a new relationship to winning. She has come to see that it is more fun for us all to enjoy the game than for one of us to beat the others.

Now both children work to modify the rules of games so that there is a way the family can win, rather than an individual winning. We say we don’t keep score—and we really don’t (for years we have tried to get Naomi not to keep score, but she’d keep it in her head anyway). We have found ways to be collaborative that are not simply the obnoxious, liberal-parent ways of softening the blow of losing, but are creative and thoughtful ways to set goals for us to work together. In many ways, this drive to make new rules that contain goals we can jointly achieve or not is the same energy that pushes Naomi to be competitive in the first place, but here it does not rest on the particular outcome of a game—whether we achieve the goals set or not, Naomi remains cheerful about it.

This has raised so many questions for me about the power of competition, the power of collaboration, and the connections between the two. I have often been called into executive groups where the drive of individual members was hurting the performance of the entire team. Competition wipes out collaboration as a more common and more powerful force. And in organisations, we do not take the cards away from the people who are being damagingly competitive—we tend to complain about them and then give them bonuses. i look at where we are as a species right now, and I think it’s clear that most of the things countries do to win—whether it’s a war or an arms race or a speed-of-development race—are key factors in the entire collective of the planet losing. I keep wondering how we can channel the hard-wired competitive nature of humanity into the softer-wired collaborative nature of humanity and then expand the boundaries of who we’re collaborative with, who counts as our tribe, our people, our family.

Helping Naomi acquire a new relationship to these ideas has been hard but possible. Aidan seems fairly naturally collaborative (although still competitive against rival soccer teams). Now we just have to work on the rest of the world. Decks of cards all around…

(Pictures today are of Aidan’s bowling birthday party which was both heaps of fun and also a reminder that we live around the world from our families. It’s been that kind of week. And speaking of competitive, you should see Michael bowl! Ah, the hidden talents of the kiwibergers...)

01 July 2008

Cold spin

Who knew that I loved to garden? I have loved it in theory for years, a theory supported by the fact that for the last twelve years I have spent half my time having a yard the size of a living room and the other half having only window boxes with no yard at all. In this new house, though, the front is exposed to the sea and the weather and the back stays level long enough for a lovely deck (er, if we had the money to build one) and then tumbles down steep terraces to a sheltered and sunny hideaway. In the back the sea is less constant a presence, a low whooshing that doesn’t detract from the millions of birds that eat the seeds in the trees on the hill. It is a place that feels magical, a place where magical things might have happened, might happen again.

The problem is that the hideaway is, well, hidden away, and the house doesn’t communicate that well with the back garden (one of its few flaws). There are so many things to do to the inside of the house, and the weather has been so wintery (cold and wet or windy or both), that we’ve mostly ignored the garden. On Saturday, that changed.

The week leading up to Saturday was a farce, really, with hilly ups and downs like the New Zealand landscape. Our washing machine broke and we were down. But they would come and fix it—up. They came and told us it was a Major Problem, and they’d have to come and take it away—down. They rang the next day and said they’d be dropping off a loaner—yea! The loaner, when delivered in the driving rain, turned out not to work either. Get the pattern?

And other bits were just like that. No heat in the house yet, and the weather turned frigid. But the heat pump guy came on Friday and said he could install next week—I went to sleep dreaming of heat. But it turned out he couldn’t install it where we wanted it and so we’re heatless still and for the near future.

To these household discomforts are added a healthy dose of psychic discomfort. Last week, my tenure and promotion became official. I’m an associate professor now, and have a contract “without term.” IF I want it. I expected to drink champagne and feel celebratory and cheerful, but it sent me spinning. Do I want it? What DO I want, anyway? A heat pump? A fireplace? An academic job in the US? A consulting job in NZ? So many choices in front of me and this one somehow intractable. I spent the week spinning while my washing machine stayed still; each night I dream of good and bad choices, lovely and terrible possibilities.

So on Saturday I wanted to get out of the spin and get rooted, which meant, ironically, unrooting wheelbarrows full of weeds from the back yard. This yard has had a rather up-and-down existence too: landscaped by a professional landscaper 20 years ago, ignored for the next ten years, nurtured by the woman who lived in the house just before us and then neglected by us and, worse, trampled on by our builders for a year.

I was not particularly cheerful heading into the garden; it’s a good place to feel overwhelmed by the nascent potential and by the hundreds of hours of work needed to realise that potential. And I was cold and bundled in long johns and jeans, winter coat, hat and scarf. I plopped myself down on one of the terraces and faced the ancient struggle of my Irish farming ancestors: person against weed. I yanked and tugged and dug and scrabbled. I put my whole body weight into some of the bigger ones, landing hard on the ground when the roots finally gave up and exchanging a spray of dirt in my hair for the spray of curses I directed back at them. I trimmed and deadheaded and cleared pathways. At the end of the day I was dirty and tired and more cheerful than I’d been the whole week. The unkempt, weedy land had become an unkempt, mostly-weedfree land, which was all I was hoping for anyway.

The washing machine is still broken and we still have no heat. I still have to decide whether or not to go back to my old life. It’s still wintery cold, and on Sunday the rain came all day in horizontal sheets. But the feel of roots slowly loosening, and the shock of success when a big clump of weeds is in the compost and not in the garden has soothed me. Now, sitting on the train to go and get the kids, sleepy and warm in the afternoon sun, spinning seems like such a silly thing to do. Unless, of course, you’re a washing machine.