Things I Know 188 of 365: Their relationship changed in a second (The Lost Post)

Illiteracy is rampant. People are out of communication.

– Karen Black

On a plane for Atlanta.

The row ahead of me includes, from aisle to window, dad, mom, 3-4 year old.

While signs suggest this isn’t junior’s first flight, he’s also not quite ready to take over for the captain.

He cannot help moving. He is driven by the energy of a pre-schooler multiplied by the idea of actually flying – up there – in the planes. They look so sky when they sore over his house.

I sit at a safe observation distance in the aisle seat with a sleeping elderly couple providing suitable insulation between  my flight and this kid’s frenetic energy.

I’ve other work to complete, but can’t tear my eyes and ears off of the scene.

This little guy cannot stop investigating. He’s got questions, and his compact size allows him to wiggle to vantage points I’ve never enjoyed in flight.

I am loving the story he’s writing of the flight.

The flight attendants, all big hair and drink rations, are having none of it.

“Ma’am? Ma’am! He’s got to sit. He’s got to sit down. The captain’s got the fasten seatbelt sign on. Ma’am?”

The line is delivered with a smile reminiscent of the one the evil queen must have flashed when meeting her stepdaughter while courting Snow White’s dad.

Not above attempting help, the flight attendant tries to buy compliance from the little guy, “Do you like chocolate milk? I think I’ve got some chocolate milk in back.”

Motion stops in the seat, and the flight attendant turns toward the tail of the plane. To no one in particular, she flashes a face of “OH. MY. LORD.”

After the milk is delivered, our rows enjoy a period of relative calm.

“Uh-oh, mommy,” I hear.

Mom’s head looks toward the window seat and then turns to dad, “His armrest is broken. We should tell them.”

Dad, stereotypically non-communicative, nods his head and heads back to sleep.

Twenty minutes later, mom and kid work their way to the restroom. He’s gotta go. Plus, peeing on a plane sounds like an adventure.

While they’re away, flight attendants begin collecting trash. One meets another just behind my row.

“He broke the armrest,” she says.

A heavy, all-knowing sigh.

They continue on their way.

From that point, until we exit the plane, a quiet battle takes place between the flight attendants and the family seated in front of me. It’s as thought mom, dad, and kid have shown themselves to be incompetent as passengers. Several times, they are questioned as to the upright and locked status of their seat backs as we prepare for landing.

The kid has broken their plane and they will take it out on this family in the only way they know how – by flight attending them to death.

As I watch the situation turn from cute to funny to sad, I wonder at the seconds of miscommunication that shift how these two groups understand one another. An event took place for which neither was responsible, but both were party to, and it defined how they came to know one another.

It took only seconds.

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Things I Know 239 of 365: My idea is good, and I like yours better

The focus of Improv leads to conversers being present, meaning they exist in the here and now. The acceptance in Improv leads to the speakers’ connection, meaning each becomes part of a co-creation team. The distance between the communicators is thereby no longer a gap to be closed. It becomes a connector, filling the space between bodies like a see-saw connects the two riders on either end. Each is dependent on the other for flow and movement. This synchronicity of focus and acceptance is what results in full body listening.

– Izzy Gesell

We sat in the breakout section of one of my courses yesterday. Once per week, small sets of students from the course sit with Teaching Fellows from the class to look into the readings and ideas of the week more completely than we’re able to in a larger lecture class. For an hour-and-a-half, we delve more deeply. Not quite a study group, the time still pushes my thinking.

Thus far, it’s been a way for me to better hear the plurality of views in the room.

Yesterday’s was the first of of the student-led sections. In pairs, we each have a week during which we’re responsible for leading 45 minutes of the conversation.

Yesterday’s leaders reminded me of one of the more difficult rules of improvisation, “My idea is good, and I like yours better.”

We each took three notecards.

On each card we wrote a quotation from or question inspired by the readings.

When everyone was ready, someone in the group started by stating their question and throwing the corresponding card into the center of the table (whether what was written on the card was relevant or not).

Whoever responded did so and threw one of their cards into the center of the table.

Conversation continued according to this system.

If there was a lull, someone would read a fresh question from the cards remaining in their hands.

If you ran out of cards, yours became a job of listening.

Often, people had selected quotations that could easily shift and be re-purposed to fit into the flow of the conversation.

Sometimes, though, the cards and what people wanted to say were out of sync. In these moments, folks were faced with a choice.

Enter, the rule of improv.

In grad school, like any other school (or any meeting of more than one person, really) conversations are often peppered with unrelated remarks. Though I’m as guilty as the next person of occasionally moving things to my point rather than appreciating and building off of others’. It’s a tough skill and not something completely in line with rugged individualism.

Yesterday’s process required us to make some choices. We were forced to evaluate which of our thoughts was worth sacrificing in exchange for access to the contribution – “My idea is good, and I like yours better.”

In an improv scene, two people enter a scene, often with only a single word as a suggestion, with the purpose of building of a narrative that looks effortless. In good improv, Person A will speak a line and Person B will edit whatever was about to come out of his mouth and speak to build on the idea of Person A.

In great improv, the whole process takes a fraction of the second and the audience has no idea.

It’s not a negating of a person’s idea, but a shifting of purpose. I could cling to my idea or I could work to build up another person’s equally valid proposition. If it’s about good ideas and the building of understanding, my plan can easily be abandoned so long as we’re building something.

And, if there’s a fire to my idea and what I’ve written on my cards is imbued with passion and inquiry – then I spend that card as is.

This is something we could do well to teach the children in our care, the adults at our sides and, most importantly ourselves.

Things I Know 194 of 365: We miss something when we fail to engage

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

– George Bernard Shaw

Working in Long Beach this month has meant one key change in my life. I had to find a new coffee shop.

A connoisseur of both coffee and coffee shops, with two weeks left on my stay, I’ve got it down to two possibilities.

Exceedingly different spaces, one element keeps them neck and neck – people watching.

As I’m listening in on the conversations around me, I’m astounded at how few people are listening to the conversations they’re actually in.

“My brain’s not all there today,” says the barista at Contender A. She means it as an explanation as to the joke she made in conversation or the point she attempted to interject into a discussion didn’t quite land.

The thing is, she says her brain’s not all there today every day.

Based on my informal longitudinal study, this event is neither a singularity nor properly named.

As I learned in freshman speech class, communication isn’t a one-way street.

Last week, I took special care to listen to the patrons eliciting this admission of a daily lobotomy.

They weren’t listening. Or, they weren’t ready for a conversation. These people filed through the door for lattes and bagels. When the barista commented on their tattoos, their piercings and their hair; they didn’t know what to do. They weren’t ready to connect with another person.

It was, as it turned out, their brains that weren’t all there.

When I realized this, I got sad.

Here she was, attempting to connect through more than caffeine, and they weren’t gaming up to engage.

She kept offering up volleys to person after person, “Oh, that’s a great T-shirt. Where did you get it?”

“Huh? Oh, I don’t remember.”

Five minutes later, “I really like your sleeve. What does the middle part stand for?”

“Sleeve? Uh, that part’s for my mom,” then change in the tip jar and out the door.

Though it saddens me to see the barista feel failure time and again, what troubles me more in these scenarios is what the patrons are missing.

More times than I can count, I’ve listened to complaints that social networks are taking the place of genuine communication. I’m not sure if these missed communications are a result of declining social skills due to increased social networking or if people were never that attentive in the first place.

Either way, it’s moved me to be more attentive. When I’m engaged in conversation, I’m making a special effort to actually engage.

A friend trying to drum up funding for a new school remarked that she’d started a conversation with the person next to her on a recent plane flight.

Normally a flight recluse, she told me the conversation revealed her row mate was a land developer and social entrepreneur. Cards were exchanged and my friend is a step closer to her dream.

I don’t know that my barista is going to hold the keys to conversations that will help her customers realize their dreams. What she does offer and what so many of them are missing is the chance to connect to someone – even if just for a few minutes.

Things I Know 76 of 365: Good conversation can be self-sustaining

Conversation would be vastly improved by the constant use of four simple words: I do not know.

– Andre Maurois

Thursday’s advisory began with a question. Actually it was a statement first, “Now, I don’t mean to sound racist.”

I turned to Matt, my co-advisor, and said, “We’re about to hear something racist.”

“Why is it that caucasian people can’t handle spicy foods?”

I was wrong.

The next 45 minutes ended up being one of the best advisory periods I’ve ever had.

We wound through racism and stereotypes and what separates the two. We talked about possible sources of those beliefs. We talked about some of the roots of American cultures and asked questions of the kids as to what they understood.

I explained my family had no discernible roots in the Caucasian Mountains and that it was okay to call me white.

When one student said, “Let’s say someone calls someone else the ’n-word’ for no good reason, what do we do?” we worked toward an answer to the question and dealt with the idea that “for no good reason” implied there could be a good reason.

From a bean bag chair, one advisee added, “The ’n-word’ was just a way the slave owners oppressed black men.”

I’ve had this conversation or some off-shoot of it many times. This was the best version.

“What about when you hear someone say something and you think it is racist? What’s the best way to deal with that?” I asked the advisory.

I called on a student who didn’t have her hand up, but whom I could tell was working through her answer by the look on her face.

“Tell us what you’re thinking,” I said, “Even if you’re not sure, tell us what’s playing through your mind.”

A little shocked at first, she said, “Well, I guess I’d ask them questions. When she asked her question,” she said motioning to the student who had asked the initial question, “you didn’t jump on her or anything. You just asked her questions. That seems like the best thing to do.”

I challenged a little bit, suggesting it was one thing to offer that answer now, but another to remember it in the heat of the moment when one feels offended. The advisee agreed and we continued thinking and talking.

We continued, as luck would have it well past the dismissal time for advisory.

No one made a move toward their book bag.

No one asked if they could leave.

No one departed from the conversation.

Because the conversation started from a place of curiosity and the topic we were discussing was rich with no clear answers, no one seemed to notice we’d tripped over the end of our mandated togetherness.

Waiting to understand

The Gist:

  • A little over a week ago, I started trying to contact @EdPressSec on twitter to ask some questions about the elimination of direct federal funding for the National Writing Project.
  • When I didn’t get any answers, I moved from twitter to phone.
  • Though I’ve had a few promises that I’d be gotten back to (often by the end of the day), I’m still waiting.

The Whole Story:

This all stems from a few simple questions:

I’m attempting to understand, to gather more information from a variety of sources in order to be better informed.
Friday, I received a three calls from the DOE’s press office. Each person told me they would pass my request on to the appropriate person. Thus far, I’ve not heard back.
I understand the frenetic and demanding nature of the job of working within the press office. It’s why I wasn’t surprised when my initial calls took a few days to return.
But, this is a conversation worth having and one that deserves transparency.
I fully support the use of tools like twitter to offer a more fluid connection between citizens and their government. At this point, though, I’m getting the feeling the tools are being used to push out prepared statements, but not really communicate.
I’m feeling rather frustrated.