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Wednesday, February 23, 2011


In the past week, I have had several “upstream” days. We have all had upstream days, where we spend most of the time working hard to move forward and make progress, and yet no matter how much effort we are putting forth, we feel as if we are trying to run underwater. Or, inanimate objects start behaving peculiarly: things fall down, refuse to open, refuse to close, become impossible to find. Or, students look at you like you are speaking a foreign language, or they don’t bring a single bit of material to work with. Aaarrrgh!

If you are anything like me in your private moments, you will be hopping mad when things don’t work the way they are supposed to work. For example, last week there was a day that was extremely cold outside. I had on multiple layers of warm clothing and several pairs of mittens, and I was still cold. Worse yet, I was on a tight schedule and trying to feed all the big outside animals within a certain time frame or my teaching day would begin late. I found out that it’s fairly tricky to do outside farm work with two layers of mittens on: gate latches won’t open (or close), and feed bin lids won’t open, close, or stay on the shelf, to name just a few issues. I actually have to admit that I got so worked up about a reluctant feed bin lid that wouldn’t close, that I actually pummeled it a few times for good measure after finally closing it, and I threw a swift kick at the can for good measure too. It probably didn’t make things work any better, but I felt pretty darn good after doing it.

During the rest of the day I thought about what causes upstream days and how they could be avoided or at least managed. My quartet buddy Bruce has a saying in his family: “innate perversities of inanimate objects.” Yup, that was my morning for sure, but what causes that? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Time Management
When we don’t leave enough time to complete a task adequately, we run the risk of suffering an upstream day. What’s that old saying? “Haste makes waste”? Could it have been that I was working too quickly to allow the time for my body and brain to work in synchronicity?

That’s Life
As one student’s mother observed, sometimes that’s just life. Things happen. How we choose to deal with these kinds of events is what is important. Hmm, guess that means I shouldn’t have pummeled or kicked the can?

It could be that my attitude wasn’t right to begin with. Since I was in a hurry for time pressure reasons and because I was really, really cold, I may have adopted the “rush, rush, rush!” attitude and approached everything too quickly to handle well. Then instead of recognizing that the problem was with my attitude, I instead directed my frustration at the feed bin can. As I write this, of course, I understand the absurdity of my pummeling and kicking, although at the time I just enjoyed it. Nothing is as satisfying as an adult having a two-year old’s kicking, screaming tantrum. Trust me, sometimes it feels great. Just try and do it when no one can see or hear you.

How to Cope
After some reflection (and a few days to consider a different perspective), I have come up with a few coping strategies for upstream days. These strategies focus on three possible areas: physical change, mental change, or language change.

Physical Change
The next time I’m reacting badly to a situation, I’m going to notice what my body is doing during my emotional experience. Since I tend to get angry more than anything else, I know that my body tends to tighten up, I hold my breath, and my shoulders and neck get tight. So if I have another upstream day, I’m going to work on breathing deeply as a way to loosen myself up.

Perhaps others respond to upstream days by feeling depressed. I imagine that depression manifests itself in the body by the head hanging lower, the eyes looking down, the face going slack, and the breathing becoming shallow. So reversing this physical trend may go along way to reversing the upstream day feeling.

Mental Change
Mental changes involve changing the mindset of the moment to something else that will elicit a different mental or emotional response. For example, if we were to stay curious about what was happening or become fascinated by what was going on around us, we would be examining the situation with a lot less stress, maybe even with humor. Sometimes just adjusting our focus will fix our mental outlook. When we are in the throes of innate perversities of inanimate objects, focusing on what is working will help us to stop obsessing about what isn’t going according to plan.

Language Change
This one is so simple, that I have to laugh at myself for not remembering to try it. After a very unpleasant upstream morning, I then proceeded to have upstream moments throughout the day. Next thing I knew I was having an upstream day the next day also. Then I heard myself complaining about it: “I’m having another upstream day!” I thought, That’s it! I’m telling myself to have an upstream day! Yikes!

At that moment, I changed what I was saying aloud (yes, yes, I talk out loud to myself), and also what I was thinking. Instead, I started saying, Well, the morning may have seemed upstream, but not now! Things are just cooking right along now! And things did indeed improve. Whew! I’ve got to remember this trick a lot sooner than a day later.

Other Tricks
There are other tricks to dealing with upstream days:

·      Manage time better: If I had planned my morning better, I would have allowed a little extra time to factor in the difficulties that inclement weather presented

·      Plan for gremlins: If had planned my morning better, I would have allowed for the possibility that a gremlin would muck up the situation.

·      Have priorities: I don’t always remember to prioritize what I do, and then I find myself scrambling around to get things done in time. Priorities can mean something as simple as laying my next day’s clothes out beforehand or making my lunch for the following day.

·      Reprogram my thoughts: This is similar to the above tip about mental and language changes. Just altering the way I look at or approach a situation will often cut the problems down to a manageable size.

·      Refocus my attention: When we are in the midst of an upstream day, we lose sight of our ultimate outcome. Gently reminding ourselves to re-focus back on the original task may lighten up the upstream load.

Hope everyone is having a great week with no upstream days!

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