Thursday, 16 October 2014

Improving people skills

People are most interested in themselves, according to Alan and Barbara Pease (Easy Peasey: People Skills for Life), and therefore in social situations we should focus comments on the person we are talking to, and ask open-ended questions, talking about ourselves only in response to questions.

At a recent party, I put this advice to the test with mixed results. On the positive side, I enjoyed myself more than I usually do at parties. I think this was because the conversations I had were more interesting: instead of conversing on autopilot, I listened actively to what people said to me and I asked questions that interested me. Paradoxically, conversation was less work than usual.

On the downside, I wondered afterwards if two of my guinea pigs felt interrogated. By responding to comments with open-ended questions, and avoiding talking about myself except in response to questions, I pushed others to dominate the conversation. I don’t think people like to feel they are dominating. I created an interaction that was more like an interview by a journalist than a conversation between equal partners.

In another recent conversational encounter, I took a more equal share. An old friend came to stay for a few days during which we talked pretty much non stop. I was deeply interested to hear her thoughts and stories and she encouraged me to share mine. We both asked questions and both volunteered information. Of course, this natural, deep interaction is hard to replicate with someone I don’t know well, but I think I can apply aspects of it to other conversations.

Next time I’m at a party I’m going to tone down my approach. My plan is once again to work on listening actively and asking questions in response that interest me. And, as Alan and Barbara advise, I’ll be enthusiastic and I’ll avoid jumping in on other people’s stories whenever something they say triggers in my mind a story of my own. But I will volunteer my thoughts and stories unasked when it seems appropriate, and I’ll put more effort into elaborating on my answers when people ask me questions.

I’d be interested to hear what others have found works and doesn’t work to improve the quality and enjoyment of different interactions.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Public-funded provision of food

In the year leading up to the recent general election, each of the parties I was choosing between came out in support of taxpayer-funded lunches in schools - to my dismay.

I lack faith in the ability of any of them to identify and provide healthy food. If you’ve ever endured a stay in a New Zealand public hospital, you’ll have sampled the type of fare I anticipate: predominantly refined-carbs (lots of low-quality bread, white rice, pasta), doused in salt, greasy, vegetables overcooked, any raw vegetables or fruit old and limp, high-sugar drinks such as fruit juice, high-sugar dessert and snacks. Hospital administrators don’t seem to have heard dieticians’ advice to restrict sugary treats to no more than once a week. Their menu could be designed to slow patient recovery and develop unhealthy habits.

Any hope that the government might do better when serving school children is extinguished by a look at the Year 6-7 Food Technology curriculum. Almost every child in the country completes this cooking course. What an opportunity to introduce a captive young audience to delicious, healthy meals! But at my local intermediate school, which otherwise offers an outstanding Technicraft programme, almost every recipe is based on white flour usually accompanied by sugar: scones, biscuits, cake, cheese straws, bread, macaroni cheese, hamburgers in buns, fruit and marshmallow kebabs, pancakes, sweetened muesli.

I suggest cleaning up our hospital menus, Food Technology curriculum and breakfast-in-schools menus before expanding public food provision to school lunches. While the government continues to fund unhealthy, processed food, the government is part of the problem. It may even be negatively influencing the diet that citizens choose to eat at home: children and adults who haven’t studied nutrition might reasonably assume that food provided by a hospital or school is a healthy template to follow.

Let’s offer healthy food, as defined by evidence-based science: menus dominated by fresh vegetables and fruits, with legumes, whole grains, raw nuts and seeds. Bread included as an occasional side dish rather than a staple, and made from wholemeal flours with added whole or kibbled grains and without additives. Conspicuous in their absence: refined sugar and drinks other than water.

My appeal to political parties aiming to improve children’s nutrition is to let evidence of benefit direct spending. This may mean lunches in schools is moved off the agenda altogether, perhaps replaced by school and community gardens or the discontinuance of GST.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Spotty’s life as we know it

Spotty wearing headphones

We first met Spotty in a local church hall on a Friday night about twelve years ago. Tessa and I were dropping off a box of clothes we didn’t want anymore to the leaders of Tessa’s Girls’ Brigade, who were setting up for their annual church fair. I would be returning in search of bargains the next day, but Tessa had something else on. So when she saw a box of pre-loved soft toys she asked me to spend her savings (a coin given to her the week before by her grandmother) on one of the animals in the box - preferably a cat, preferably this one. I duly purchased the small snow leopard the next day and he came home to live with us.

Like most kiwi kids of her generation, Tessa has had numerous soft toys over the years. The first were gifts from her parents’ friends when she was born. The next arrivals were exotic, handmade creations brought home by her grandparents from overseas trips. Later came rag dolls, then cute puppies and teddy bears Tessa couldn’t resist buying or that her friends gave her as birthday presents. I didn’t know, when Spotty first joined the fray, that he was special.

But within a few months it was always Spotty who accompanied Tessa on sleepovers and camping trips. And Spotty who held pride of place in Tessa’s bedroom: either perched decoratively in front of her pillow on days when the bed was made, or, more often, and equally demonstrating Tessa’s preference for him over other cuddle mates, lying on his shoulder on the floor, legs in the air, where he’d fallen out of bed when Tessa rolled over in the night.

Given how important Spotty was to Tessa, I always worried he might get lost when out in the world. His closest call and greatest adventure so far came on a tramp up Mt Holdsworth in the Tararuas when Tessa was seven. Camped near the summit, we sat on the hillside in the evening as I read aloud to the children, Spotty tucked under Tessa’s arm, where I’ve seen him so many times. Somehow, afterwards, perhaps in the novelty of brushing teeth outdoors, Spotty was left on the hillside alone. By the time we realised he was missing, it was dark outside and a howling gale was blowing. Convinced that Spotty was gone forever, I tried comforting Tessa with elaborate descriptions of Spotty’s new life as the beloved nest-mate of a family of forest birds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this had the opposite effect to what I intended, so that between the noise of the wind and Tessa’s sobs and the wall of the tent blowing onto us, no one got much sleep that night. The next morning, Tessa was off and away in search of her friend as soon as it was light. I was astonished when she returned, only moments later, with Spotty once again tucked under her arm, a smile lighting her face. I still marvel at how Spotty clung to that hillside through the gale, while our tent poles acquired a new bend that remains today.

Spotty looking out the window

Over the years, Spotty’s whiskers have been loved off him and his tail doesn’t stand as straight as it once did, but he looks after Tessa as well as ever, and their exploits continue. Spotty’s first taste of international travel was a trip to Australia for the Oceania Climbing Championship. Head poking out of the top of Tessa’s backpack, he seemed to look with interest on the scenery of New South Wales as we drove north from Sydney to the competition. His next overseas jaunt was to Fiji, Tessa's companion as always, and with her grandparents in train on this trip.

The summer before last, Tessa and Spotty went to Canada on a three month student exchange, experiencing life in the snow. This year, they’ve been living in a student hostel. Was it just a symptom of haphazard packing methods or was it a sign of changing priorities when Spotty lay forgotten on the bed after a weekend home that finished in a rush to catch the train back to campus? Apparently unruffled, Spotty waited the three weeks till Tessa’s next visit home, and travelled back to campus squashed in a by-now-familiar suitcase.

Spotty, Tessa and Lisia

After they're done with study, who knows? Perhaps Spotty will be Tessa’s partner on her next journeys, or perhaps the sacrifices a budding international backpacker makes in order to travel light will mean that Spotty is left behind, and he and I will wait together for our beautiful girl to return to us.

Monday, 13 October 2014


I love to figure things out by writing about them. I’m fascinated by happiness - my own and other people’s - and by ideas that help me to apply my values day-to-day instead of rushing along on autopilot focussed on Getting Stuff Done.

I am a parent of two young adults. We homeschooled together for most of their childhood and teen years. Both are now branching out on their own. No longer a full-time parent, I’m beginning to explore new adventures.

I am a rock climber. I enjoy running and dancing. I love learning about fitness, health and nutrition. I eat a mostly whole-foods, plant-based diet with lots of great raw fruit and vegetables, but I struggle with an addiction to refined sugar.

I am interested in the environment, in particular finding ways for my family, living in suburbia, to reduce our negative impact on the planet.

I am a somewhat reluctant gardener. It takes more time than I would like to keep our small yard from dispersing noxious weeds around the neighbourhood. But I do appreciate having a reason to be outside focussing on details of nature I wouldn’t otherwise notice. And it’s very satisfying to grow some of our own food.

I love to read. Great books are a major source of fun and learning for me.