Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sun and suncatchers--rainbows in my room

In winter, the sun shines into my study.

Chunky faceted crystal suncatcher in front of window screenIn my dreams, it shines on a room that is serenely uncluttered, where ferns and houseplants flourish, and where crystal prisms in each window cast drops of rainbow on the walls and floor.

In my dreams.

In fact, my study is so cluttered that I’m having trouble finding papers when I need them, and my houseplants are surviving tenuously on intermittent waterings. But I do have suncatchers in almost every window, and when the sun’s angle is right, my study is filled with tiny rainbows.

A glass ornament hung on a ribbon or plastic line isn’t going to stay perfectly still, and so the rainbows drift, lazily, around the room. If I nudge the prism, the rainbows jitter madly about for a moment, then race across the room, gradually slowing to near-stillness.

There’s a reason rainbows are associated with unicorns and fairies and other magical creatures. They are nearly magical themselves—sunlight split into colors. Sometimes, when I glance at a suncatcher from just the right angle, it lights up in a momentary blaze of color—green, maybe, or violet. I imagine that someone watching would see a tiny rainbow drifting over my face at that time, entrancing me.

The whole idea of rainbows brings out my whimsical side. Years ago, I lived in an apartment where I hung a suncatcher in the kitchen window. Mornings, I held my cereal bowl out so I could pretend I was flavoring my breakfast with rainbow. I still like the idea of rainbow-flavored cereal.

On the practical side of things, there are some difficulties in hanging chunky glass crystals (the best kind for rainbows) in a window. As I mentioned, they can swing if accidentally bumped into, and while I don’t know who would win in a contest between crystal glass and window glass, I’m sure it wouldn’t be good for either. A suncatcher on a shorter cord would be less likely to swing into the window, but it would also catch the sun less often. So most of my suncatchers hang in windows that have interior screens. The crystals would look better in windows without screens, but the screens provide extra safety for the windows.

The sun only comes through the crystals at certain times of day and only when it traces a more southerly path through the sky. But when I think about it, maybe that’s a good thing. If I had rainbows every day, all day, they wouldn’t seem as special.

Till next post.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Versatility of Playing Cards

The other day I was in a waiting room with a friend, waiting, when I realized I should have brought a deck of cards. When you have a deck of cards, you can play all sorts of games. Now, I am a bit out of practice. In fact, I can't remember half the rules to half the games I used to know. But I can remember enough to play Hearts (sort of), or Five Card Draw Poker (probably), or (shudder) War.
Cards with educational illustrations

When I was a kid, my mother taught me how to play Pounce, which is like double solitaire except that you only have four cards in front of you to build on, and you have a pounce pile of thirteen cards to get rid of. We madly slapped cards into the common area, building on aces, and I always got hung up on trying to get lots of cards in the center. As a result, my mother usually yelled, "Pounce!" first and I had to deduct twice the number of cards left in my pounce pile. That's a lot of points, so I tended to lose.

When we stayed at my granny's, we sometimes had enough people to play "Oh, Hell!" I'm sure it goes by other names as well, but "Oh, Hell!" was what you said when you found yourself taking more tricks than you had predicted you would take. (I don't remember if we kids actually said that, but I'm sure my granny did.) I don't remember the rules very well, except that you got a bonus for taking the number of tricks you predicted, or, if you went over, a bonus if you could take all the tricks, and the number of cards in hand changed each round, from thirteen down by odd numbers to one and then back up again. Or something like that.

My uncle liked solitaire, so sometimes when he was there he would demonstrate the many variations of that game. He laid out the cards in the shape of a triangle, or counted out different piles... I was never all that fond of solitaire and didn't learn any of them well enough to remember them now, other than the basic seven-pile solitaire. But solitaire is a game you can play even if no one else is around, so it's got that in its favor. And playing with cards rather than a computer gives you the option of cheating. Just a little, you know.

I could try to map out the timeline of my life in card games. In college, I learned some of the many variations of poker, including that silly one where you only have one card and you hold it on your forehead (I think that counts as poker--it's a betting game, anyway.) As a newlywed, I learned cribbage, which was a lot of fun and which I have mostly forgotten again (points for adding up to fifteen, and also... series?... and marking points on the cribbage board, of course.) When my daughter was young, we occasionally played War (who doesn't? and who keeps playing after they've learned something more exciting?) and then moved on to Go Fish and Crazy Eights. I don't remember playing Crazy Eights as a kid, and I feel like I missed out. I like Crazy Eights, though I keep forgetting if you can play eights any time you want, or only if you can't follow suit.

As my daughter and I made our way through the Nancy Drew computer games (by Herinteractive--I recommend these for mother-daughter pairs who like puzzles), we found ourselves playing Scopa with a character in The Phantom of Venice. Interesting game, with a forty-card deck and different suits. Then my daughter and friends started playing Slapjack at lunch in middle school. She showed me the game, though--again-- I've forgotten the details, but the appeal was clear--slapping your hand down on a card faster than your opponent. Yeah, I can see how that would play well in middle school. They probably had bruised hands by the time they were done.

I don't play card games very often (by which I mean games played with a regular fifty-two card deck, not other kinds of card games, like Munchkin). Even so, I love decks of cards. I admire their versatility. All you need is a standard deck, available at most drugstores, and you've got a whole world of games open to you. Not only that, but decks of cards, like chess sets, are a vehicle for art. I often buy them as souvenirs, figuring I can have photos of Biltmore or New England AND something to play games with. 
Souvenir cards
We also have educational sets that illustrate sea creatures, birds, or flowers, and a cute set with hamsters. I have a set that offers optical illusions, a set that is basically a bunch of different pieces of art (not practical as it is very hard to tell what some of the cards are supposed to represent), as well as standard decks with ornamental backs. 
Cards with interesting faces
For that matter, I still have the set I got when I was in fifth grade, with a yellow daisy deck and a red heart deck. It comes with its own box, which is nice, but if you don't have a box for your cards, you can always make them a pretty tuckbox to keep them from getting scattered.

Cards with interesting backs

And if you don't like card games, you can always build houses out of them.

Till next post.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Conversations, Arguments, and Listening to Other People's Experiences

The other day I was reading a document by the Civil Conversations Project  and a sentence struck me. Under “Tools for Moderating”, they had written, “You can disagree with another person’s opinions; you can disagree with their doctrines; you can’t disagree with their experience.”

True. Doing so implies either that the person doesn’t know what’s going on in their own mind, or that the person is lying. Either implication is offensive. So this is a good rule to bear in mind.

You might think that this issue mainly comes up when conversing with someone whose life and experiences have been very different from one’s own.That is certainly an important time to remember the rule. However, even among family members and friends, people’s experiences differ in ways that create conversational blocks. That’s what I want to talk about here.

I’m going to start with something a friend told me. When she was a teen, she told me, she sometimes came downstairs and said to her mother, “I’m cold.” Her mother would reply, “You can’t be cold.”

Not an unusual exchange, but if we take the mother literally, she is denying that her daughter feels cold. By implication, either her daughter doesn’t know how she feels, temperature-wise, or she is lying.

Some mothers might not mean it literally. It might be short for, “I am astounded and mind-boggled to learn that you are cold, because I feel as if I am in a sauna,” or possibly “I think you are really saying that the house is too cold, but 68F is a perfectly reasonable temperature for winter, so go put another sweater on.” My friend was certain that her mother really did not believe that she was cold, and my friend found it infuriating.

Now, I do have to say a word on behalf of parents. When your child is a baby, she doesn’t know how to articulate what she is feeling. Gradually she learns to recognize what word describes what state of her insides, and also what the feelings mean about her body. (“I’m hungry—I need food,” “I’m too hot—I need fewer clothes or cooler surroundings,” “I have a pain in my toe—better see if it’s injured.”)

This learning process is not without error. I remember walking my daughter home from school when she was little and listening to her complain the entire way that her feet hurt, that she couldn’t keep walking,.. and wondering if something was wrong with her shoes. Or maybe something was wrong with her feet? Did I need to take her to the doctor? Then we got home and she went racing around the yard, foot pain forgotten. She hadn’t been lying, but she hadn’t been a very good judge of the condition of her feet, either.

Somewhere between our kids’ babyhood and adulthood, we have to accept that they are just as good at describing their own experience as we are at describing ours. Even if we can’t understand how it is possible that they are feeling cold/hurt/achy or have trouble believing that things could really have gone the way they say, we have to take them seriously.

Besides being insulting, attempting to disagree with someone’s experience is an attempt to deny reality. Denying reality is not a good start to a conversation, and it’s also not a good start to an argument.

I have in mind a situation from many years ago, when a group of friends somehow ended up on the subject of putting the toilet seat down. (Important policy discussion here.) Most of the group were female, if I remember correctly, and someone pointed out that if the seat is left up, women sometimes sit down without looking and fall in. Ick. Wet. And in winter, cold.

The one guy in the group found this impossible to believe. How could women sit down without noticing that the seat was up? He even tried putting a scrap of paper on someone’s chair when she left the room so when she came back and picked it up, he could say, “See, she looked before sitting that time.”

But the fact is, sometimes women do sit down without noticing the seat is up. It happens. You can’t deny the facts. Had he accepted that as a given, he could have gone on to consider the larger situation. He could have argued that even if women do get wet behinds now and again, that isn’t a good enough reason to insist that men put the seat down. Alternatively, he could have suggested that everyone put the lid down, so that both sexes would have to do something and no one would fall in, either. He probably could have come up with a lot of things to say, but instead he got sidetracked by his refusal to accept what we were telling him about our experience.

Finally, I want to add two things. First, I recognize people do sometimes lie or exaggerate. But you should be cautious about coming to that conclusion. Assuming that a person must be lying because what that person is saying doesn't fit your own experience can have terrible results. (For a drastic example, see the bit about car batteries and fishing in "What We're Fighting For", NYT.) Second, there’s a difference between knowledge of one’s own experience and one’s interpretation of other people’s actions. Why did my friend’s mother say that she couldn’t possibly be cold? My friend can make guesses, but only her mother knows for sure.

Till next post.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Feedback Fatigue--too many requests, useless forms, and grade inflation

I’m tired of getting email requests to rate products and services, and phone calls asking me to answer a survey.

I looked online and found a name for this: "feedback fatigue". Seriously, I get emails from doctors and medical facilities, hotels and travel services, HVAC companies and companies that have installed windows for me, companies I have bought stuff from on-line and sometimes in-store, the school system, and sometimes even from the town I live in. If I go to a conference, there’s a form to fill out at the end, and if I sign up for a class with some organization, they want an end-of-class rating. Finally (I hope) strangers occasionally call to ask my opinion on politics, products, or services. I’m getting good at saying, “No, I don’t want to take a survey” before they get too far along in their spiel.

In fact, I've basically given up filling out any feedback requests or surveys at all. I don't respond when a company I've bought from eagerly requests a rating, though I realize I use such ratings myself to figure out if they are reliable. I don't fill out surveys from my doctor's practice or the hospital, after filling out a few too many and trying to remember details like how long I waited (which appointment was it, again?) before actually seeing the doctor. I tend not to respond to surveys from services I've used, either, unless I actually want to rate them. That is, sometimes the service person was so nice I want to say something nice in return, or I thought they were particularly efficient, or else I have a (mild) complaint I'd like to register.

I really hate situations where the person indicates that getting a good rating would help them with their job--that has occasionally happened and I hate feeling pressured. And of course, if I’m supposed to fill out a form in front of them (which happened at least once) the feedback becomes insincere and totally useless. I also hate having to rate a perfectly adequate but unexceptional experience on a five-point scale.

The problem with the five-point scale (or the ten-point scale) is that somehow an adequate experience such as "it arrived on time and was what I ordered--no complaints" is supposed to get a 5, which means that it gets the same rating as "your sales people were so helpful in finding what I needed and shipping it to me even though I didn’t know what it was called--thank you!". Back in the brief period when I taught, I told my students that I regarded an A as signifying above and beyond the usual, not merely "you didn't do anything wrong." Otherwise, how could I single out the really top-notch students with a high grade?

As long as I’m on the subject of grade inflation, by the way, what is it with the applause inflation? I go to a performance of some kind and almost without fail people rise up and stand during the applause. When did a standing ovation go from being a response to a truly amazing performance to being the usual response to a merely good performance? I want to save something for those performances that blow me away, but I feel like a curmudgeon if I remain seated when everyone else is standing.

Anyway, the problem with the feedback requests isn’t just dealing with the five-point scale, or even the sheer number of requests. Often the questions themselves are hard to answer. Sometimes they don't seem important. I can understand a doctor's office being concerned about cleanliness, but I've seen questions about cleanliness for situations where it didn’t seem that relevant. I don't want to have to decide if a store was a 4 or a 5 for cleanliness. Just leave me a comment space. If the store rated a 2 in cleanliness, you can be sure I’ll say something.

One of the things I liked about the book The Circle by Dave Eggers was the way it highlighted the problem of feedback requests by twisting and exaggerating them. In the book, the main character's job required her to request feedback for every transaction and anything below nearly perfect had to be followed up to make everything right, which then necessitated a request for feedback on the follow-up experience ... It was crazy. And then there was the guy who took the whole idea much too far by asking for numerical feedback on his performance in his personal life (yes, that performance). Talk about putting someone on the spot. The last thing we need in our personal relationships is numerical ratings.

Getting back to the non-fictional world--I realize that appropriate feedback can help one improve. But how to avoid creating feedback fatigue? For starters, I would like the option to "just click here if things were okay and you have nothing else to say". I might be willing to give one click to help a deserving business accumulate an adequate rating. There could be an option to fill out a longer form for those who actually have something to say--good or bad—and who want to leave comments.

Even so, the forms need to be better thought out (see the bit about cleanliness questions.) Sometimes in surveys the school sends out, I don't understand what they are asking about (avoid acronyms!) or else the wording of the question makes any answer misleading. This is especially true of questions that ask about multiple people or events. If two teachers are great, two are okay, and one is dreadful, how do I answer a question asking me to rate my child's teachers overall on a five point scale? (I think that was a real question.)

Will feedback requests and surveys get better (and shorter) as people respond with increasing irritation? Are we doomed to years of being buried under such requests, just as we are constantly fighting spam and junk telephone calls without an end in sight? Is it part of the human condition?

Am I so fatigued by feedback requests that I'm getting downright silly?


Till next post.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Growing Out Violas--a past foray into plant selection

Back in 2007-2010, I was intrigued by violas, those smaller cousins of the pansy. They come in such a variety of colors and patterns (though not quite as many colors as pansies), and their flowers, though smaller than pansies, are more numerous and less liable to flop over.

They have the additional feature that in this climate, one can plant them in fall and they often survive the winter and bloom again beautifully in spring. (They don't survive the summer--whether due to heat or the natural limits of their lifespan I'm still not sure.)

If you don't deadhead them, many will form seedpods after blooming, and for some reason I decided to save seeds with the idea of selecting for interesting flowers in the next generation. I didn't actually try to cross flowers with each other--that would have required a much greater level of effort. I just picked interesting plants and saved seeds from them in small labeled envelopes.

Trays of viola seedlings just starting to bloom.

Then I planted them out. In 2010 I planted quite a lot of them. (Were all these saved seeds? Did I really get some flowers that were so dark?)

It was fun seeing what colors showed up. The yellow ones, as I recall, tended to produce just yellow offspring, and the one called "Peach Frost" also seemed to produce more like itself.
"Peach Frost", I think.

Unfortunately, as I look back at what passes for a Garden Log, I discover that I kept terrible notes. No system. What did "5b" mean? Did I just pick some viola, whether something I bought or a random volunteer (I got quite a few volunteers) and give it a number? Or was "5" its parent? Was I just trying to label the picture for the next year's seed?
The mysterious "5b".

The other problem was that I really didn't have anything to aim for. No special color that isn't already easily available, and as for patterns... as far as I can tell, blue-and-cream combinations depend greatly on time, temperature, or both. A viola that looks fabulous at first can have very boring flowers later in the season and vice versa. A nice-looking bloom can change as it ages, getting more or less interesting as it does. So while I picked flowers that I liked, I had no basis for selecting among their offspring.

An interesting purple-and-white combination--for now.

I did try, briefly, to evaluate the scent of the violas, since I like fragrant flowers. I bought varieties that were supposed to have some fragrance, and checked to see if I liked them. But even when violas have a fragrance, it's pretty mild. And it's hard to smell a flower that's so close to the ground.

To top it off, perceived fragrance varies with the temperature and maybe some other conditions as well. I know this is the case because I choose roses as much by fragrance as by appearance, and I have to keep in mind that some days I can hardly smell anything from even moderately fragrant roses, while other days the scents are much more pronounced. (I think individuals also vary in how well they perceive specific scents. No wonder catalog descriptions are so useless when it comes to fragrance.)

Looking back on my foray into viola selection, I rather miss the excitement of seeing that first flower and comparing it to its parent (the known parent). Maybe I should plant violas from saved seed again, even if I'm only doing it from idle curiosity. But first, I'll need to save some seeds.

I guess that's as good a reason as any to buy more plants this fall.

Till next post.