Feb 22 2012

When it Spills, it Pours

Getting out of Paris was brutal. With only one day on the ground after a trans-Atlantic overnight flight, kicking into get-the-car-packed-high-gear took a tremendous effort. Loading the car took the right blend of brute force and spatial strategy. Buddy-roo’s old bureau, now replaced by a new grown-up chest of drawers, had been earmarked for the country house. We had to wind it down the stairwell and cram it into the trunk of the car. De-facto secured it with our collection of orphan bungee cords. We were one of those cars on the highway, stuffed to the gills and precariously secured.

Dusk was about to turn dark as we pulled in front of the stone house, the car headlights catching the little eyes of some creature in the grass. I crawled out of the front passenger seat, stepping over my computer case, handbag and another bag of something that wouldn’t fit in the trunk – crowding my feet for the entire drive – and stretched my stiff body before starting the ritual of opening the house. Electricity on. Close the refrigerator door and plug it in. Start the fire. I set about breaking the kindling while De-facto ventured out to the side yard with a flashlight to turn on the water. Short-pants and Buddy-roo paced around the cold room, not unbearably freezing like it was earlier this winter, but still too chilly to remove their coats, while I crushed up pieces of newspaper and piled the broken sticks on top.

When the water flow is restored – we drain the whole system whenever we leave during the winter – there is always a surge and sound of water forcing its way again through the pipes and you have to make a tour to every tap in the bathrooms and kitchen to shut off the faucets which were left open to avoid a freeze. De-facto had done the tour, and went out to finish unloading the car and I was swearing at the kindling that wouldn’t catch. The girls were walking circles around the kitchen table singing “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” (this year’s school theater production, but that’s another post) when a rush of water spewed out of one of the pipes leading to the kitchen sink. A connection had split. The water sprayed out in two directions, at full force, gushing out on to the floor.

“Turn it off!” I shouted to De-facto, unable in that split second to recall the most critical words of this command: the water. I dropped the iron fire poker to the ground and ran toward the sink. Several plastic buckets, used to collect water when we closed the house at the end of our last visit, were stacked in the corner of the room. I grabbed them and ran to the broken pipe, holding one under each jet of water. I was stunned at how quickly they filled up.

“Turn it off! The water! The pipe is broken!” I managed to inject more information into this second appeal. De-facto sprinted out to the yard while I filled and dumped the buckets, not without spilling more on the already flooded floor, until the spewing water trickled into a slow stream and finally stopped.

I turned around to see the girls frozen in place, standing exactly where they’d been the moment it started. Short-pants was all deer-in-the-headlights. Buddy-roo was on the verge of tears, “This is the most horrible country house in the world!”

“It’s okay,” I said, “it’s not something that can’t be fixed.”

“We have to toughen them up,” I said. (Not out loud, though.)

The real crisis, I determined, was that while attending to the water surge, the kindling had burned and cooled before any larger logs could be added to their flames. The fire was dead. We were 0 for 2 on the way to any kind of dinner.

While De-facto traced the origin of the broken pipe to figure how to shut off the right valves so that at least some of our taps functioned, I phoned the plumber, his name preserved on a post-it in a moldy notebook in a dusty drawer. We had no expectation that he would come immediately – this he was relieved to learn – but I wanted to alert him to our situation and plead for a visit the next morning.

What followed next: a new wheelbarrow full of wood and a second go at the fire, this time with more kindling and more success. Potatoes and onions and carrots chopped and in the pot. Cheese grated. A smug self-satisfaction at the ample wine supply acquired during our last visit, the sound of a cork popping which eases any country house catastrophe.

“So,” I said at dinner, “what if I hadn’t been in the room when the pipe burst. What would you have done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Call Papa.”

It makes me wonder: how and when do you learn how to react in an emergency? At what age does the hop-to kick in? Maybe they need to go to Girl Scouts. Something. Our children stood there absolutely paralyzed, unable to move or think of a response. This shouldn’t surprise me: a cup of milk (or juice or water) gets knocked over on table at home, and they freeze up and scream for me.

“You know what do to,” I’ve told them. “Run to the kitchen, grab a towel and a sponge, run back before it spills off the table and onto the carpet.

I know they’re good kids, bright kids, doing their best, learning how to live in the world. But next time, if I can possibly turn off my own hop-to I’m going to stand there with them and gawk whatever’s spilling over the edge of the table. Then I’ll ask, “What are you going to do?” And wait.

On the bright side, it’s one way to get a new carpet.

May 21 2009

Not my Problem

She stands expectantly at the kitchen island. “I’m thirsty,” she says, regressing by at least three years using her baby voice. I tell Buddy-roo how I’m sorry to hear about it, cuz geez, I’ve been thirsty before and I know how uncomfortable that can be.

“But I’m really thirsty,” she says it again, adding a whine. I tell her it sounds like a serious problem she’s got on her hands.

“Yeah,” she answers, waiting for me to offer her a drink. But I don’t.

When somebody tells you their problem, it can feel like they’ve tossed a bowling ball in your lap. There’s a weight to it, an expectation that by telling you, they’ve somehow handed it off, and you’ll do some thinking on it and put things right. Some people are better than others at deflecting this. (I also know people who have radars so ill-attuned that it doesn’t even occur to them to step in and offer a solution.) Most mothers, I would argue, given our instinctive and learned propensity to be of help, may go too far in the let-me-fix-it-for-you department.

This is what I’m trying to avoid.

A problem, simply stated, is just a complaint. But if you phrase it as an open-ended question, its nature changes immediately. It becomes a quest for solutions, or request for help. I think it’s a more productive way to look at problems, and a more responsible way to invite other people to help you solve them.

Anybody who’s been in one of my workshops or meetings has heard me say this: “How might you put that in the form of a question?” Short-pants and Buddy-roo have heard it ad nauseam, too, and yet – as this thirst incident demonstrates – they still need reminders.

“What’s the question you mean to ask me?” I say to Buddy-roo. A look of recognition on her face, it all comes back to her now. “May I have some apple juice… please?” (At least she adds the magic word without being prompted.)
I’d like to take credit for this little nugget of wisdom, but I can’t. It’s something I picked up while attending CPSI, the Creative Problem Solving Institute, a conference about creativity.

Until I went to CPSI, I thought of creativity as something uncontrollable, some unbridled spark that comes or doesn’t come, related to an innate, natural talent. What I learned at CPSI is that everyone is, in some way, creative – and that we can be creative on command if necessary, by using a creative process to enhance or disrupt habitual thinking. CPSI was my introduction to deliberate creativity.

If this is all sounding a bit like an advertisement for CPSI, well, it is. Today is a CPSI blog party and I’ve joined a few colleagues to help get the word out about the conference, coming up in Boston, on June 21-24. Check out what other CPSI friends and fans are saying:

New & Improved
Gregg Fraley
Filed Under Missylaneous
The Artist Within
Pablo Muños Román

I attended my first CPSI twenty years ago – and for many years it was an event I wouldn’t think of missing. Now, with school-aged kids, it’s harder to manage the trip to the states every June. So unfortunately, I won’t be at CPSI this year. (I did get to go to CREA, a European spin-off of CPSI, in April.) But here’s a really good reason to consider signing up for CPSI in June: if you go, you’ll get to see De-facto!

I’ve learned a lot from going to CPSI, but one of the most powerful take-aways, for me, was this idea of re-phrasing problems as questions. Instead of “I’m thirsty,” it’s “how might I get a drink?” Instead of “I don’t have any work,” it becomes “how might I find new jobs?” or “how to get more work from current clients?” or “how might I enjoy the newly-found free time I have as a result of having less work?” What ends up happening is that you realize there are a number of questions embedded in any given problem, and answering one of them that you hadn’t thought about before might actually solve the damn thing.

Of all the crappy wisdom I try to shove down my daughters’ throats, I hope that this is one thing they’ll remember. Well, and then there’s always this, phrased – of course – as a question: in what ways might you be sure to wear clean underwear just in case you’re in an accident and you end up at the hospital?