Monday, September 2, 2013

Skill Sets

Having my family away for a week recently was weird.  I've been away from my husband and kids before, but it's rare to have a stretch of time that long where they are away from me.  I thought I would be productive having the house to myself.  But I wasn't.  I was uninspired and listless.  I found myself sleeping in while cuddling the dog, eating cereal, and binge watching things like Breaking Bad and Call the Midwife.  Which is essentially what I would do if I were sick.  So what was that about?

It got me thinking about skill sets.  We specialize in activities in our own little worlds, and develop expertise in trivial matters that most will never appreciate.

When I was in college I was a research assistant in a Music Cognition Lab.  Ohio State had one of the best such programs in the world at the time.  I had deep admiration and respect for my boss who I thought ran her lab smoothly and well, and I enjoyed my work.

Music Cognition is like a crossroads of music perception and psychology.  We primarily studied piano performance because there were fewer variables to deal with, since (pedals aside) the musician can only control which keys to hit, when, and how hard.  We were able to record performances directly into a digital player piano and analyze them in depth.

It was fascinating to be involved with the development of new studies and to try and quantify elements of musical performance.  Going at certain problems scientifically can be counter to our instincts as musicians.  You set up experiments in an attempt to disprove what you believe.  If you can't disprove it, then you are that much closer to knowing if it's true.  But often that means throwing out compelling evidence in an effort to remain unbiased, whereas a musician can take that same information and run with it.

For instance, in one of the piano pieces we had children sightread, every player miscounted the longest note.  It will not surprise a single music teacher out there that the dotted-half-note at the end of the first line did not receive a full three counts, ever.  As a musician I found that useful information and take it into account when I teach even to this day.  As a researcher I had to throw out all of that data because since everyone made the same mistake we could not rule out that it was a flaw in our design causing the problem. We had to look at the performance errors most likely to disprove our hypotheses, not ones that supported them in obvious ways.

In any case, we had to invent a coded language for defining the performance mistakes we were studying, and there were more than 20 columns of numbers for identifying every one. Each error had to be labeled by the subject, its location, its type... Depending upon the distance of the error from its source it was deemed “contextual” or “non-contextual,” and by our definition the distance of a contextual error could only ever be 0 or 1, and a non-contextual error would always be a 2 or higher.

I used to scan hundreds upon hundreds of lines of code.  I could spot typos in data entry by merely scrolling down on my computer screen at top speed and catching instances where the contextuality of an error was mismatched with the distance number in the last two columns.

I was really good at it, if I do say so myself. And none of it counted outside of that room. That was the most specialized skill set I think I ever developed. There were only five of us in the world who knew what any of that code meant, and it only mattered for a span of a couple of years.

Parenting is a lot like that. You develop incredibly intense skill sets based on your child and his or her needs at various stages, and then abandon those for new skill sets. Your whole world is about tummy time or teething or weaning until it isn't.  I watch friends with babies who are immersed in having to tend to their child's every need all day every day, and I'm amazed at how distant I am from that life and those skills now.  I could jump back in and do it again if I had to, just like I bet I could remaster scanning all those lines of music cognition code, but it looks so foreign.  My worries about my kids are at once simpler in some ways, and vastly more complicated in others.  The physical demands are easier, but the psychological and logistical ones are harder.

So I think what happened to me during what should have been a productive period of independent bliss was that I was knocked too far out of my current skill set to know how to function. I'm accustomed to fitting my interests and projects in and around the needs of others. There was no sense of urgency about anything.  No deadlines or fear of interruption.  I found that too much time can make me as late as too little. There was no one to set an example for, no one to notice if I accomplished anything, and no one in the house to consider at any turn.

It was bizarre to realize how much I'm used to taking so many other people into account.  I think of myself as doing what I like and making that work with my responsibilities, but minus the responsibilities I was no longer sure what I liked.

At one point I found myself in the grocery store thinking, “What do I eat?”  I can't remember the last time I needed a week's worth of groceries for no one but me, and it changes everything not having to worry about other people's meals.  I usually buy kale, but did I actually like kale?   I bought some.  Along with a grapefruit, a tub of tapioca pudding, pepper jack cheese, turkey, whole grain buns, and boca burgers.  I stood in the checkout line just feeling confused.  By mid-week I was eating out of a container of refrigerated cookie dough.  What the hell is that?  I'm still not sure what it means.

Now everyone is back home, and we are preparing to settle into the routine dictated by school and the rotating schedule of violin/piano/choir/orchestra/homework/practice fun that rules our lives from September to June.  That's the life I'm wired for right now.  All the projects I meant to find time for while everyone was away I feel like I can finally tackle now that I have to squeeze those things in around the edges of my impossible schedule.  The current skill set I've cultivated is tailored to that specific way of functioning.  Actual leisure?  Aside from using it to paint my nails I apparently don't know what to do with it.

Today's plan, for the last day of summer vacation, is to take a picnic to the shore of Lake Michigan and fly kites.  It's one of those outings that may be nicer in retrospect, but I now know it's one of those events that I'm comfortable doing because that's where my skill set lies.  I know what to expect, I know how to do it so that it works for everyone.  It's what I do.  Didn't realize until this past week how much of it is also what I currently am.

Happy Labor Day everyone!


  1. I totally get this. Since I stopped having babies and toddlers, I am WAY less efficient about things. The house is actually messier and dinners get cooked less often. Looks like I'll have to develop some new skill sets!

  2. I find this a noteworthy read. We modify, evolve, and lose certain skills as we go through life. I've noticed with people, who are not naive signers, tend to lose their ability to sign fluently over the time especially if they don't have anyone to converse with in sign language. But once they meet a Deaf person or someone with a hearing loss and relies on sign language to communicate; they do jump back on the saddle because they still retain some ability to sign, albeit maybe not as good as they used to be. I find it interesting!

  3. I've noticed that phenomenon too and I like the idea of skill sets to explain it!!

    Interestingly, when I was unexpectedly stuck with two weeks of unplanned "vacation" due to a licensing issue, I originally figured I'd get a ton of things done, but I did hardly anything AND we ran out of clean laundry. When I spent four months with two little kids and two parents working full time, life was insane- but we all had clean clothes. I consider this one of the great mysteries of human behavior- that we are more productive when we have "too much" going on. I work with people with head injuries and the effect is significantly exacerbated in those with concussions / blast wave injuries, so I think it is all to do with the frontal lobe. :)

    Did you like Call the Midwife? I liked that one a lot. It's based off a book, and it was pretty quick but enjoyable read if I recall.

    1. Netflix had season one of Call the Midwife available, and I think I wept at every episode. Looking forward to weeping through season two eventually.

  4. Yeah I don't know if there are any more seasons or how to get them!! It's been those same ones on Netflix since February.

  5. I recently experienced my first evening alone in our house, with my husband and toddler son away at the ILs. I did not plan ahead to do anything fun, and I also found myself at a loss as to what to do. It was very strange, and I was happy to join them the next day. I really like your thoughts about not knowing what to eat.

  6. I always struggle when the entire or part of the minions are gone. The cadence of my life is just off and while I trudge through my days sometimes dealing with all of the logistics of caring for them, I'm at a loss when I don't have them there sometimes. I think I'm okay for a day, but more than that and I'm lost. BTW...I totally love Call the Midwife. I'm still trying to catch up to this season. They are touching and funny all at the same time.

    Lovely writing. Lovely post.

    1. I think episode 3 of Call the Midwife was the one with the old man who lived alone... That one turned me into just a wailing puddle for the better part of a day. I have a particular soft spot for sweet old men and just, bleah. I was a mess. Probably was best to get all of that (plus the dark Breaking Bad stuff) out of my system while the kiddos were gone.

  7. Maybe you ate cereal and watched TV because you could. How often are we given the chance to worry only about ourselves and wind down to barely moving?? Sounds like a vacation at home.