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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Just How Hard IS Change?

Good morning!

I’m coming back today to a book that cheered and energized me last week. In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip Heath & Dan Heath don’t tell us that change is ever easy, but they do make a convincing case that we can make change easier by approaching it differently.

Here’s how too many of us (yes, me, too), often react, when people aren’t making changes we want them to make:

“How can they be so stupid? And lazy! Can’t they see past their noses? Can’t they use their heads?” Sartre said (or, at least, is said to have said), “Hell is other people,” and who hasn’t felt frustration at the apparent intransigeance of other people? But every single one of us is an other. We meet face to face or online or over the phone: to me, you are the other. To you, I am. And that’s just how it is.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath – and I’m going to call them H&H from now on – cite numerous research studies and tell many true stories in every chapter. They are not simply “brainstorming” or speculating on how change might be made easier. Their tips and recommendations are clear and specific and backed up by results. And whether I want to change myself or someone else or a whole group of people, the basic empirical insights hold. H&H tell us story after story of changes that worked, changes initiated by people with no special authority or power other than an ability to see how to do things a different way.

Do human beings "stubbornly resist" change? Maybe the change they are asked to make isn’t clear to them. “What looks like resistance,” the authors say, “is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.”

For instance, “Eat a healthier diet” is not specific. – And here I have to interrupt myself to say I don’t at all like the authors’ example, because it has to do with buying and drinking milk with only 1% butterfat rather than whole milk, and I am not at all convinced that whole milk is unhealthy (in fact, it drives me crazy that most of the yogurt in the grocery store case is nonfat!), but that’s not the point. The point is to give clear, specific instructions, and make them easy to follow.

H&H also say, “What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” All of us depend on routines and habits to get through the day, and if we have to think too much, uncertainty about what to do can be paralyzing. Too many possible choices or an ambiguous situation will make our minds anxious, and when anxious, we revert by default to a familiar path, seeking our comfort zone. If we can’t, studies have shown that operating outside a comfort zone for too long results in deteriorating task performance. The mere experience of applying willpower to not eating a plate of cookies left in the room with them resulted in subjects performing more poorly on a task than other subjects without the antecedent test of will. Self-discipline wears us out. We only have so much energy for it. So we’re better off devising little tricks to keep ourselves in line.

In order to brave a new path, we also need a motive. Emotion is the “elephant,” in the book’s terms, intellect the “rider,” though I’ve avoided that language here. The important point is that to effect change, in ourselves or others, we must appeal not only to the intellect but also to emotion.

Here’s an astonishing revelation from early in the book. Can you believe that of the 24 most commonly used English words for emotion, only six are positive? Our language, and probably our brain itself, is more alert to threats than to happiness, probably for reasons important to survival – but still, that’s what we see all too often in each other, even when it isn’t there. I see not what you’re doing right but what you’re doing wrong, not the good you’ve done but the good you’ve failed to do. And how motivated are you by criticism? Me, not very!

All the logic in the world does not induce people to change without emotional appeal. Argument and reason are good, often necessary, but by themselves insufficient. Okay, what kind of emotional appeal? How about fear? Fear is a strong motivator, H&H acknowledge, but works best in the short term. It doesn’t work all that well for problems requiring incremental change over the long term. Why would that be?

Well, fear is one of those negative emotions.
When you’re angry, your eyes narrow and your fists clench and you get ready for confrontation. When you’re disgusted, your nose wrinkles and you avoid whatever has grossed you out. When you’re afraid, your eyes grow wide and your body tenses up and prepares to flee. On a daily basis, then, negative emotions help us avoid risks and confront problems.
Narrowed eyes, clenched fists, tense body – that’s how we respond when we’re in the grip of a negative emotion. Fight or flight! says the mind. Don't confuse me with more options! But that narrowing effect also works on our thoughts and doesn’t help when what we need is a broader vision, when we need to innovate, and to grow.
The positive emotion of interest broadens what we want to investigate. When we’re interested, we want to get involved, to learn new things, to tackle new experiences. We become more open to new ideas. The positive emotion of pride, experienced when we achieve a personal goal, broadens the kinds of tasks we contemplate for the future, encouraging us to pursue even bigger goals.
Appeals, therefore, to positive emotions – excitement, hope, optimism – motivate people to embrace change.

One tip the authors give is to focus on success, however small, and build on it. They call it “finding the bright spots.” Say your son was failing all his junior high classes but this semester managed to get a B in one of them. Talk to him about that good grade, help him find out what made the difference in that class and how he might be able to extend his success into other subjects. In general, don’t look for problems but for what’s working.

Another is to shrink the change. Don’t ask for a big change all at once. Show people ways they have already, without being aware of changing, taken the first couple of steps, and it's like magic!

He's on his way!
It also helps to provide “environmental tweaks.” These, H&H say, “beat self control every time,” whether it’s my own behavior or someone else’s I want to change. One simple example (we’ve use this in our home) is to use smaller plates on the dinner table. Rearranging furniture is another way to tweak the environment and change the situation. Shaping the environment changes behavior, and it’s easier, more efficient, and more pleasant to shape new behaviors that way than by hectoring and scolding. You don’t even have to talk about it!

I’ve hardly done justice to this book, because I’ve been boiling down to prescriptions what the authors present in exciting stories of change. You just need to read it for yourself. Switch is written largely (not exclusively) from and with a business perspective, but the implications go way beyond. In fact, I can hardly think of a realm where they would not be appropriate.

So, from what I’ve said so far, let me ask what lessons you would draw from the H&H prescriptions when it comes to working for political change? ??? If you’re not feeling optimistic yet, blame it on me and not on the authors, go to the library, and give H&H a reading for yourself. (I’ll order the hardcover for anyone who requests it; unfortunately, the book was never issued in paper. I also have 2-3 used copies winging their the way to me.)

If you buy the book from me and read the whole thing and don’t feel the faintest glimmer of hope, I’ll cheerfully refund your money and take the book back, knowing that it will inspire someone else. What I hope for, really, is a community of energized, hopeful people ready to go at change in a whole new way. Maybe we can help each other? I’d love to travel hopefully into the future! Wouldn't you?

Monday, August 28, 2017

We're Never "Just Saying"

Who knows where this turtle lives?


That is a dangerous subject heading! How can any “always” or “never” statement about human behavior be true? Or, if it’s true, how can it be anything other than trivial? But I’m going out on a limb here, because this is something I’m thinking through for myself as I put my thoughts into words.

Specifically, I’m thinking about Facebook and what I post there and why. To begin with, why post anything at all? Then, why post the things I do? The short answer is that I post for several different reasons, not all reasons applying to every post.

o    To let family and friends know what’s going on my life, how my world looks, and how I feel about it.

o    To gain visibility for my bookstore and for particular books.

o    To acknowledge and share some of the accomplishments and joys of family and friends, authors and other people in the book world.

o    To share news on topics close to my heart.

o    To spread a little sunshine.

o    To ask for friends’ help in thinking through a question or problem.

I’m sure this list is incomplete, but these are some of the reasons that occur to me as I ask myself the question.

Time off!!!
As for reading at this point in a very busy week, I have somehow managed to reach page 316 of a 412-page ARC of a YA novel and am also halfway through a very inspiring nonfiction book. The latter, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (brothers?), is called Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, and, as someone who often finds change difficult in her own life, I am finding this book inspiring and encouraging.

Books, dog, flowers

Okay, this morning I finished both books, the novel and the nonfiction book.

As You Wish, by Chelsea Sedoti, is a YA novel to be released in hardcover in January 2018 ($17.99). The setting is a small town in Nevada (Las Vegas only a day trip away) where each resident, on his or her eighteenth birthday, visits the wishing cave to make a single wish, assured that the wish will come true. There are, however, parameters to the wishing, and many wishers experience heavy pressure from family and friends, as does Eldon, the protagonist of the novel. As the landmark birthday approaches for groups of high school seniors (and all subsequent birthdays are nothing after the eighteenth), they attend a mandatory wishing class to learn the rules and prepare themselves for the big day.

To placate the school principal, who styles himself a psychiatrist and also coaches wishing class, Eldon comes up with a project: he will interview a number of people in town to find out what they wished and how their lives turned out. His own decisions – more than one – ultimately surprised but satisfied me as a reader. The story was engrossing, characters well drawn.

One small matter bothered me off and on through the story, and that has to do with language. I know the words used are familiar to all adolescents and probably used by most, so their use is realistic – and the author does not pepper every page with profanity. Still, I can’t help wondering if it is necessary at all. No doubt this is my age talking.

*  *  *  *  *

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard has me all charged up – excited! – energized! – hopeful! What preconceived ideas to you bring to the possibility of change? Do you think it possible for a person to change, fundamentally, or are character and talents immutable, part of our DNA?

Family visit

This is getting too long. I need to quit, post it, and come back to the Switch book another time. About my subject heading, though: my point was that we never “just” say anything. Even if I don’t have a clearly thought-out reason for an utterance – maybe it just “popped into my head” – I could have kept it to myself. As for the response “Well, it’s true” (to the question of why someone says something), that’s no answer at all, because every time I open my mouth, there are an infinite number of possible truths I might utter.

What I’m getting at specifically here – my reason for writing about this, now – is, as implied near the top of this post, my thinking about why I or my friends or anyone else posts what they do on Facebook, and I’m thinking now especially of the political posts. Do I hope to change someone’s mind? Shine a light in a dark corner? Or am I merely venting frustration, expressing outrage, confident that those who already agree with me will rally to my side? And if they do, what do we, the like-minded group, gain? I ask this because I want us to gain something – and that’s where the Switch book comes in....

More soon, I hope, as we run and bustle and skid toward Labor Day!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

From Northport to Marrakech

Weather was perfect on Friday for Music in the Park; the three-man band, a group called Looking Forward, played a Crosby, Stills, and Nash Tribute; and David and I were this week’s sponsors. What memories that music evoked! One particularly happy CSN song, of course, was “Marrakech Express.” Here are the originals doing that number, but the band in Northport did a rousing rendition of their own.

Music in the Park has been a Northport tradition for many years. (I forget how many, but I’m sure someone can remind me.) Lisa Drummond has not been the organizer since the beginning, but she has been an enthusiastic emcee for quite a while now. Even Lisa’s enthusiasm had not, however, prepared me to hear myself and my husband described as “local icons.” Wow! David, the artist, is used to being called an icon, but it’s something new to this little old bookseller. I decided I can live with the label.

Someone who has been with Music in the Park since the very beginning -- every single show -- never missed a single one -- is sound man Kent Holton. Now that is someone I call a local icon! Please, a big round of applause for Kent on sound!

Such a relaxed, colorful evening! My roving camera eye caught all kinds of what I might call “iconic” sights -- those features that are part of every Music in the Park event and have been for years -- starting with the fact that so many of us settle into the shade of the old willows of Marina Park. The willows are monumental but natural, and it wouldn't be Music in the Park without a few kids climbing up to perch on large branches above the crowd.

Local color? New marina buildings are definitely bright in day’s late, slanting light.

Little kids running back and forth across the grass and sometimes stopping to dance a bit in front of the band are a happy sight, and a while later grownups got up to dance, too.

Over nearer the boat launch parking lot, the American flag was mostly still on this mostly windless evening,

while from on top of the gazebo (with the band playing underneath) a dove surveyed the scene below.

Friends circulated, greeting one another, before the music started and during the intermission.

All in all, it was a beautiful, peaceful, happy, completely Northport scene, and we tore ourselves away before it was over only because we needed to get ready for the arrival of more visitors.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

My Muddled View of Current Events

Wednesday started out early as "one of those days" -- beautiful morning with heavy dew (I went out barefoot to hang clothes on the line); horror statements emanating (again) from the White House; smiling friends’ faces on the streets of Northport; sad news that a Northport woman had died at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City; no long lines at Tom’s, where I went to buy a paper, but I’d forgotten it was 5% senior discount day and hadn’t gotten together a full shopping list; a man slipping into the bookstore before I was ready to open – I told him I’d be right back and ran next door to Deep’s, but found coffee pots empty; then a string of happy bookstore customers, including one woman who returned to tell me how much she loved Mr. Rochester – had about 80 pages left and needed to hurry back home to finish it! Up, down, the momentous and the trivial all mixed up.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After the usual morning errands, instead of sitting in the car by the harbor to read my newspaper ... or taking Sarah out somewhere north of town to escape village streets a while longer ... I decided to walk around with my camera (and dog) to look for happy sights. needed some happy sights. One of the first I found was the smiling face of George Twine of Abundance Catering. George and I discussed the sad topics of death and politics -- how could we not? -- but were also mindful of our good fortune in being where we are, among familiar Northport friends.

Colorful blooms and blossoms everywhere in town, both nurtured and volunteering on their own, were worth stopping to admire. 

I would have photographed David Chrobak and his new dog, but his dog took exception to Sarah's presence, so we continued quickly on our way -- stopping, however, for an unexpected beauty down by the creek. Hushed, we stood quietly and watched.

You can tell dog parade is past and the start of another school year coming on by glancing around at all the parking spaces on village streets. Even Tom’s parking lot on 5% senior discount day was not crowded.

Author Sarah Shoemaker stopped in, and I wasted no time in handing her a signing pen. But why didn't I think to grab my camera and photograph her signing her book? Next time! (Sarah, be forewarned!) People are still coming in to tell me how much they love Sarah's novel. Sometimes someone takes a break to come in and talk about it, reluctant to reach the end. I know the feeling!

The other evening I finally settled down to reading something very different, a book by George Orwell I’d never read before and one I probably would not have appreciated in my younger days. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell describes in detail (he must have kept a daily journal) his time in the Spanish Civil War, both how he felt at the time and how he looked back on the time afterward. There are also chapters in which he discusses the politics of the conflict, both the official versions put out by journalists far from the action and the very different reality he and friends confronted on the ground. The author advises readers not interested in politics to skip those chapters, but why would anyone not interested in politics be reading the book in the first place? Well, that’s my at-home reading, anyway, in the morning dark and before going to sleep. 

...I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. ... It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. ... There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared....

What Orwell initially believed he had found among the Catalans was a true classless society, a society of “complete social equality between all ranks,” even in military fighting units.

At the bookstore one day, during a quiet moment, I also got back to a book on Camus that had been buried in a tall stack. Albert Camus: The Artist in the Arena, by Emmet Parker, is one I need to start over again at the beginning, but opening to where I left my bookmark (Chapter 4, “Men of Justice; ‘To Err is Human...’”), I find the author focused on Camus and the French Resistance during the World War II, and the parallels to the case in Spain a decade earlier fascinate me.

Many in the Resistance, Camus included, looked on the end of the German Occupation as an opportunity for meaningful social revolution; as was the case in Spain in the 1930s, however, there was no cohesive organization uniting all the different groups known collectively as the Resistance. Another parallel was the war/revolution conundrum: Must revolution wait until the war was won, or could war and revolution go forward together? There was no general agreement on this question. Thirdly, in both 1930s Spain and in France following World War II, there was a strong sense that the Communist and Socialist parties “betrayed the revolution.”

In France, following the Liberation, the Socialists proposed bringing prewar leaders, including collaborators, into a new provisional government.
Camus categorically rejected this proposal. Acceptance of it, he was sure, would mean the return to an order characterized by cowardice, abdication of responsibility, conniving parliamentarians, and personal ambitions, an order that was merely [sic] disorder.

Not long ago I read a book called The Ambiguity of the American Revolution. Looking back on the American Revolution, the American Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, and the Nazi Occupation and Allied Lliberation of France, I can’t help but wonder where we are now, in our country, on the long arc of the universe. One of my favorite movie lines goes something like this: “God loves you just the way you are ... but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.” It’s easy to point the finger at people we judge to be worse than ourselves. But how can we be better? That is the question life poses to each one of us.

Are you dead certain or hopelessly confused? I am both. Pretty clear about the world I want to see but confused as to what I can do to move it in that direction. Give in to rage -- and escalate division and violence? Take the nonviolent high road -- and allow hate to flourish? Would the methods of Gandhi have been effective against Hitler? Did our Civil War resolve sectional animosity? Some of my friends come down 100% on one side or the other, either total warfare or absolute peace and love. Do I wish to see the matter that clearly, or would clarity only be oversimplification?
I live in a beautiful place, but I am part of the “real world” of hard work and anxiety and conflict, too, and there is no “path forward” laid out for any of us in advance. We can only do our best to carve one out. And then, sooner or later, whatever we do, the grass covers our bones, and the next generation takes its turn. That’s true, I know, but ... it doesn’t tell me what to do while I’m on this side of the grass....

Sunday, August 13, 2017

August Races Along, As Do Busy Days and Nights

Have I ever had a busier, more event-packed “day off”? Friday morning (after housework and dog walk) began with a drive to Traverse City to restock one of my best-selling (metaphorically hay-making) summer books, then a quick turn-around to get to Northport for the weekly farm market and to do errands before heading up to Arcadia Woods for the annual summer luncheon of a group of fiction writer friends. Four leisurely hours of shop talk and catching up over wine and salads and fresh fruit tart. It was refreshing to sit with friends on a rainy day while Grand Traverse Bay lay cool and blue beyond the windows.

I’ll confess that on the way to Traverse City I stopped to photograph fields of sunflowers (see more sunflower photos here), and between Arcadia Woods and Northport I detoured through the little Woolsey Airport parking lot to photograph the old dairy building against stormy skies.

After the extended lunch, I went back to the bookstore to give Bruce a much-needed break. He had been deluged with book customers all day, nonstop, and after his break the two of us carried on until closing time. (One of the children's book sections had been so depleted by shoppers that I had to move things around on Saturday morning to fill the shelves again.)

At five o'clock on Friday I hurried home to put a quick supper on the table before leaving with a friend to drive down to Holy Rosary in Isadore for a world-class chamber music concert. 

Isadore is literally nothing more than a country crossroads. What would its original Polish farmer settlers think to hear Mozart played with such panache so close to their fields? On the way home, we only had to dodge one deer in the road, and it was dark, so I wasn’t going very fast.

I closed my eyes for a minute or two, and suddenly it was Saturday, the day of the annual Northport dog parade. The twenty-first annual dog parade in Northport, mind you, and also the first time an agility competition has followed the parade. A red-letter day! David and Sarah and I were only spectators, but we enjoyed ourselves immensely. David thought it must have been the biggest dog parade ever, and Sarah wagged her tail throughout the whole event. I’m told the agility competition was also a great success.

Not sharp focus but great costume look...

and many attempted photos turn out worse.
We love little Rudy!!!
Parade participant greets spectator Sarah

And now another dog parade is over for a whole ’nother year. Hard to believe. 

Time is racing. Coneflowers and tall native grasses sway in my meadow, Eagle Highway is bordered in chicory blue, and modest roadside ditches are beautiful now with fresh cattails, Joe-Pyeweed blossoms, and – although it is a terribly invasive alien we do not want to encourage – the bright spires of purple loosestrife. August vacationers are cramming in their last weeks of fun before school starts again. 

The daughter of an old friend came by the bookstore, and my heart warmed to see in her face the features of her mother. It made me feel old but happy, too. When my friend died, it broke my heart to think I would never see her again, so I love seeing her in her daughter’s face. The other daughter has a new novel out, and I want to read it but don’t want to be rushed when I do. I want time to slow down, but no, it doesn’t. Time is racing.

I hear an autumn sound and look up to see a V of Canada geese overhead. No, not yet! Where did the sandhill cranes go with their young ones? Gone already? Thistle seeds are ripening, to the joy of the goldfinches looping along the driveway, and the branches of my little apple trees are heavy with fruit. There will be more dried apples this winter, I think with a happy sigh. But no, let’s not think too much of winter yet....

It’s still summer, still “the season,” and yet time is racing. I try to keep up with dishes and laundry, along with working seven days a week, and between us, David and I keep the grass mowed. “How do we do it?” he asks and then answers his own question: “A little at a time.” 

Not only have I fallen behind with my reading as time races by, but I’ve even fallen behind with writing about the books I’ve read. For instance, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, by Debby Irving. I commented on Facebook that this is probably one of the most important books I’ve ever read, and yet I’ll probably have to re-read it if I want to compose any kind of meaningful and persuasive essay. I’d love to have a discussion with other people about it – say, if the library book group read it in 2018 or if “Trinity Reads” chose it as their focal book of the coming year.

The coming year? There are still months left in 2017, I remind myself, and I can’t let September 13 pass without some special observance of the date. It will be the 10th anniversary of my first blog post, the 10th birthday of Books in Northport. Whoever thought I would keep at this for ten years? But whoever thought, back in 1993, that I might celebrate a quarter-century of bookselling in 2018?

The other evening, musing on time’s fleet passage, the disappearance of old friends, the way successive generations are coming along now at what seems like breakneck speed, and the difficulty of making time for remaining friends to reunite, I got out Mardi Link’s Drummond Girls to re-read. Drummond Girls is one of those accessible memoirs that can seem almost fluffy at first but then surprises by deepening as the chapters go by, much as, in the book, the women’s friendships and confidence and other relationships deepen as they mature.

Even as time races by and I am challenged to find enough reading time, I find myself picking up books I’ve already read – because for me re-reading any book is like a visit with an old friend. (If I didn’t enjoy it the first time, there would never be a second.) Never to re-read? I can’t imagine that. It would be like saying, "I’ve had lunch with those friends once, so why get together again?" Or, "I saw the dog parade last year, and once was enough!" When love and laughter and poignant insight are on offer, who would ever say no?