Friday, October 28, 2011

Pipe dreams

The plumber has found the problem in our bathroom! It wasn't the drain from the apartment above. It wasn't a pipe that leaked only when the stars aligned badly and two apartments emptied their tubs at the same time. After weeks of trying to decipher the problem, we finally figured out that the problem occurred in the pipe where water flowed in, not where it flowed out. It turns out that the "shower body" upstairs was cracked.

This is such a metaphor for life. How often do we assume that pipes are pipes, and forget to distinguish that input is different than output?

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When Andrew and I got married my father-in-law came to live with us. If there's one thing that can be said for starting out married life accompanied by an 84-year old with dementia, it's that the later adjustment to having babies feels relatively uncomplicated. There were days Dad thought I was his wife. There were times he thought I was the intruder from a TV show, and stood next to the door ready to bash me on the head when I came home from work. He occasionally showed up in our room at 2am, demanding breakfast, impervious to arguments about how dark it was outside.

But what was most baffling was that I could tell Dad to take the chicken out of the freezer at noon, leave him a note reminding him, and even have him read the note aloud -- and he still wouldn't do it. It took a long while (and the book The 36-Hour Day ) for me to grasp that the part of the brain that hears and the part of the brain that reads and even the part of the brain that speaks isn't necessarily the part of the brain that stores information. Life got a lot less frustrating when I realized that what to me seemed like all one brain process was actually a sequence of processes, and that the transfer of information from ears to memory, or reading to memory, could in fact fail to happen. Different pipes.

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This morning I was working with Little Guy on persuasive writing. He tends to panic when he has to do something new, so I stopped to parse the situation. Saying, "I can't write!" could mean all kinds of things.Was he just being obstreperous? Did the problem lie in transferring thoughts to paper? Or was it in the idea generation itself?

I eliminated the written output portion of the lesson so we could focus on nailing down the thought process.

Tell me some reasons I should give you a bigger allowance. "I could buy stuff." Hmmm.

Tell me why we should get a dog. "It would help calm Big Guy, and I would have something to play with when you are working." Better.

Finally I hit on a topic Little Guy could articulate: Why should our building allow kids under the age of 10 to play in the courtyard without an adult present? Whew! He had a lot to say about that.

But it was clear that we need to spend some remedial time developing thinking-up-ideas skills before we attempt to transfer that flow of ideas onto paper. There are different pipes feeding into writing. You can't produce if you can't generate the raw material.

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I think there are two pipes at work in a meaningful life: input and outflow. Often we miss important shifts in our emotional and spiritual composition because we fill ourselves up, then feel as if we've done something. We mistake the full-belly feeling of consumption for the full-heart satisfaction of production.

Feeling full isn't the same as having a full life.

Input. Output. Different pipes. If things aren't working right and you're only looking at one kind of pipe to find the leak (or clog), try looking at the other kind.


  1. I really like your point about input and output as it relates to writing. It took me a while to figure this out in our home, not because I couldn't intuit it, but because I was worried about not being rigorous enough. Yeah, I know, that's silly. Goes into the file of things I would have done differently the next time.

    I also like your point about consumption as a form of production. But then there's Italy, where finally succeeding after a month in making a purchase that would take ten minutes in the US really DOES feel like production. I feel like, in that amount of time and with that amount of effort, perhaps I could have built a refrigerator myself! (I really did consider just storing our food on the balcony.) But as with teaching writing, I learned some things, and this time I may actually get a chance to use it again.

    Here's hoping the water in your apartment stays put for a while this time.

  2. L,
    I think that if the process of doing something *takes* a production it's certainly legit to count it as production!

    Thinking of you often over there...