Positive reinforcement isn’t positive…

plus signI play a game called Redecor on my phone. It’s a fun and relaxing game. They post colourless rooms and you need to “colour them in” with various materials such as fabrics, tiles, and wood. Then everyone is organized into groups of ten, we all can vote for which room we like the best (two at a time), and finally the top three people win prizes and we move onto the next room. Simple right?

Not so simple. I was fine with decorating the rooms and love choosing the colours and the materials (I’m absolutely in love with the Caribbean upholstery and the Peacock sequin cushions). It’s great hanging out in the Facebook groups too. And a friend of mine (the one I sing karaoke with) plays it too so that’s great. No, it was the easy peasy room judging that left me doing my breathing exercises and reassuring myself and I couldn’t figure out why.

First I’ll quickly explain how the judging works. You click on the judging and are shunted into two options. The first has you judge five sets of one current room (10 rooms in all). You see two rooms, no identifying information, and then you choose. Once you choose you see the same rooms but with the people’s screen names, the level they’ve completed this season, and their current score (out of five). The second has you judge ten sets of ten “design duel” rooms (so 20 in all). Everything else is the same except you see their score by percentage. Also, after you vote you get a prize, kind of a “thank you for voting” thing. It’s usually $75 for for first option and $150 for the second but I find you can get quite a bit more between 8 and 9pm. That being said, there’s nothing overtly scary about the judging. No punishments, you can’t vote “wrong”, it’s just a game. And I like flipping through and seeing all the pictures, at least until my chest starts tightening and it gets hard to breathe.

I think I inadvertently loosened something recently. I’m in a Storytelling group run by a mental health organization and, while my story about explaining non binary to Colin was well liked, everyone else dealt with big issues that had big feelings. So I thought that maybe I could talk about my early school years. I don’t know why. I’ve blocked most of those memories away then deadbolted them shut. But I thought… maybe??? And I remembered myself standing on a stout pipe that stuck out of the school, watching all the other kids playing together and wondering how they decided to be friends. Then I picked out one girl who looked friendly and a bit like me and went over to ask her… in front of her friends… and I mentioned that I thought we looked alike. I just remember the stunned disbelief and the laughter. I don’t remember what was said but it was enough to send me slinking back to the pipe. Enough that the next time I made friends with someone at that school, it was a tree.

But that memory was enough. I was sitting at the kitchen table late this morning and flipped the game over to judging. Soon the panic began to build but, this time, I could hear myself instead of just staticky panic.

C’mon Kath, you need to pick right. You need to pick the right one or else they’re going to take your reward away.

And, as soon as the word “reward” hit, I knew exactly what was going on. The reward is why positive reinforcement is supposed to be so good. There’s no punishment, you’re simply rewarding for good behaviour. Really? You ask a child who was promised a chocolate bar if they washed the dishes then missed a dish and didn’t get the chocolate bar if that’s a reward or a punishment. The child knows about the reward, it’s not a magical surprise that happens later, so if they don’t get it they know that too.

I find myself trying to pick the right rooms so I’m voting with everyone else so I don’t get stuck voting the wrong way. There isn’t a right way or wrong way in the game. And I’m often stymied by the lack of rules. People say beige and one pattern is the way to go and then someone will make a room with three bright colours and just as many patterns and get a great score. Then I end up blindly guessing until I recollect myself and assure myself that it’s alright to pick the room I like, that’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

When I was a little girl I had undiagnosed autism, ADD, and dyscalculia. My coordination was horrible. I struggled to hold a pencil. I was also incredibly bright, talkative, and wrote well enough that the teachers were passing my stories around in the lunchroom because they were so cute and enjoyable. Basically I was a mixed bag and needed help. I also needed someone to realize I was trying and not dawdling around and daydreaming on purpose and my numbers didn’t drift because I was lazy. All kids want to do well and please the adults around them, if it’s not happening, we need to sort it out. I don’t know how, I just know that positive reinforcement isn’t the way.

The adults around me were trying to teach me but the way they were trying wasn’t working. I wasn’t getting it. That, to them, meant I wasn’t trying hard enough (note they never wondered about their own teaching skills). So, since I must know the subject since I’d been taught it enough, I was given assignments with positive reinforcements to encourage me. And what do you do when you know you have to answer like everyone else but have no idea what to do? When you have to answer no matter what? You guess of course. And I was left panicked because if I didn’t guess correctly I was going to lose my reward, through absolutely no fault of my own, even though I was trying to the best of my ability, because the adults around me couldn’t find a different way to teach me.

Forty-three years later and it’s still strong enough to trigger anxiety attacks. Don’t tell me positive reinforcement is positive.

A Karen by any other name…

I don’t know which is more annoying, having some unknown man tell me to “relax” because I disagree with him or having him call me a “Karen” for the same reason. I mean both, ultimately, are dismissive. In one I’m simply too uptight to understand why he’s saying what he’s saying and in the other… well it’s the exact same thing.

When Karen originally started, it was used to describe a certain type of women who often dressed and styled themselves similarly and put their wants and needs above everyone else. If Karen wanted pomegranates in July, she didn’t care that they weren’t available. It didn’t matter that’s not when they grow. She wanted pomegranates! Get her a manager NOW!!!

Everyone, at least everyone who’s worked in retail, has met at least one Karen. I’m not sure why the name Karen was picked. Maybe someone thought of it as an average white woman’s name? I don’t know. If that’s the case they should have gone with Jennifer, Lisa, or Sarah (with or without the h). Goodness knows I could toss a stick in any direction and hit someone with one of those names. Not so much with Karen.

But Karen is slowly migrating from ridiculing the people who think they’re perfect and deserve more than everyone else to taunting any woman who disagrees with you. And I’m finding that it’s mainly men doing the taunting (feel free to tell me if you’re having different experiences). Take last week for example. A woman in a local group I belong to asked where she could find veggie burgers in town. Of course Random Man had to jump in to tell her that veggie burgers are terrible for you and worth looking into before she kept thinking it was a healthier alternative.

read the commentsWait, what? There’s so many kinds of veggie burgers, from cheap, frozen no name burgers to freshly made organic ones, you can’t just make a blanket statement like that. But more importantly she didn’t ask for nutritional advice! She simply wanted to know where she could pop in to grab a burger. So I replied, “I really don’t think she asked” and got back, “Relax Karen. Just trying to help.” And when I told him they fit just fine into a healthy diet, his response was, “Apparently you have done zero research and have no real input so please just choose not to comment in the future rather than look like a Karen who’s just trying to pick an internet fight.” Because the only thing I love more than being called Karen or getting told to relax is being told to be quiet and not worry my pretty little head about matters I don’t understand. Ironically enough I have researched multiple veggie burgers over the years and had answered the OPs question with several options for veggie burgers in the area so the only one who hadn’t provided any real input was him. A couple of women jumped in to support me and he was less than enthusiastic, complaining mainly about their lack of intellect because obviously if they disagreed with him they couldn’t be that bright.

Which meanders me over to my next thought. Why is there no similar name for men? It’s not just women who rant at cashiers. I had one customer who was so positive that the Tim Hortons I worked at must have an adjoining Wendy’s, even after I said we didn’t, that he went around the corner to look for it not once, not twice, but three times. Or the guy who threatened to take a lady outside for a fist fight over a spot in line. I used my Mom Voiceâ„¢ to stop that one but seriously! And, on an even scarier note, I’ve dealt with a male customer before while my quite pregnant assistant manager hid around the corner plus I came into work one morning to find out another man had actually split one of our countertops in half pounding on it in a fit of rage. If I remembered correctly, he wanted the baker to give him all the baked goods for free and the baker couldn’t. It’s against the rules and there are cameras, she’d get fired if she did. So he smashed the counter and went home empty handed instead of waiting an hour and pulling a completely sealed, clear plastic bag out of the dumpster, full of all the goodies he’d wanted. I think those are worse than whinging about an expired coupon. So mush over, Karen, maybe Bradley should have his turn in the sun. And every man who calls a woman Karen, simply for disagreeing with him, automatically becomes a Bradley.

I know exactly who should be the first Bradley. Random Man! Because you deserve it!

What a view!

My grandparents moved to Nepean in 1976, right around the time my sister Jen was born. The house was smaller than their old house, with less corners to explore, but we came to love it. We loved it, of course, for the family held within but also for the little things like the smell of cedar by the hedge, and playing dinky cars along the mortar on the stone fireplace, and the little toads that gathered near the leaky tap beside the kitchen door. Daddy Harold never fixed that tap in the 26 years they lived there because Nana loved the little toads just as much as we did. And we loved the tall fir tree beside the house.

Daddy Harold had two rules about the tree. We couldn’t get help up and we couldn’t drag anything over to get up. If we couldn’t get up on our own then we just weren’t old enough. My sisters are the ones who figured out a work around. We could climb the nearby fence and shimmy across a branch to the trunk and then climb. That opened up a fair bit of entertainment. Once we even climbed up the tree then across to the roof… but only once. The branches were too small and wobbly. Otherwise we’d just climb up for a bit then go back down. My sisters liked to go up and chat with each other on the branches but I liked to go up for the solitude. I’d feel the breeze against my cheeks and listen to the wind softly ruffle the fir needles. And, of course, each year it got a bit easier to climb as we got just that bit taller.

Nana and I blogEvery summer my grandparents would take each of us on our own for one week. It gave my parents a bit of a break and us a break too. I can’t remember how old I was this particular summer trip but I do remember it was a beautiful day. Nana settled down on one of those long, folding lawn chairs with a book and a wide brimmed hat while I made a beeline for the tree.

I didn’t have any plans for how far I’d climb, I was just enjoying the moment. I climbed past the roof of the house but that was no big deal or goal as they lived in a bungalow. Then I climbed a bit further and looked out through a gap in the branches.

“Nana!” I said excitedly. “I can see the pool!”

“That’s nice dear,” she said. Her head didn’t even move.

I kept climbing. The pool was, after all, only three blocks away. It wasn’t like I’d climbed that far. I got a bit higher and announced that I could see Ikea, which was in Nepean at the time and got the same remark. And onwards I went. I had to call a bit louder to say I could see the Rideau River… same with the Parliament buildings.

The trunk was quite a bit thinner by then and the branches were getting farther apart. Luckily I had really good upper body strength because I was reaching above my head and hauling myself up to the next branch. Then I reached another open space. Wow! Everything was so distant yet so detailed and there was a shimmer of water on the horizon.

“Nana! Nana! I can see the Gatineau River!!!”

“That’s nice dear,” came her exact same reply. I couldn’t see her at this point but I was reasonably sure she hadn’t looked up. That must have been one hell of a good book!

By now I was standing on my tiptoes to grasp the next branch. I knew that was risky but I was so close to reaching the top of the tree and there’s a lot more bragging power in saying I climbed to the top than there is to say I almost made it. The trunk and the branches were the same size and it moved slightly in the breeze. And then suddenly the next branch was the last.

The top of the tree was like a little nest, round and flat with branches cupped around it. I felt safe for the first time in about ten minutes, rocking gently and watching the world. The Gatineau glittered in the sunlight and, beyond it was a city. I named the only one I knew, other than Quebec, which I knew was too far away even at that age.

“Nana! Nana! Guess what? I can see Montreal!!!”

This time I could see her, still in the same position, “That’s nice d-” she stopped as her brain detangled from the novel and caught up with my words. “What did you say???”

She dropped the book and looked up… and up… and up. Her hat fell off as her head tilted.

“Kathleen Ellen Atkinson! You get down here right this instant!”

Going down was a hell of a lot harder than going up. It was scary enough to stand on my tiptoes and reach for a branch. It was ten times harder to let myself down from a branch then let go, trusting that I’d positioned myself well enough for the branch below. And doing that time and time again. I don’t particularly remember the views. I do, however, remember that trip down.

I finally made it to the ground, where my much shaken Nana was waiting for a hug.

“Don’t you ever climb that high again!” she scolded, and I didn’t. I don’t think I got much higher than roof height after that and that was just high enough for me.