The Art of Asking Questions

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
― Voltaire

A Skilled Interviewer

Are you good at asking questions? Can you strike up a conversation with a stranger and learn something about him or her? It’s part of primate cognitive ability; one of those things that thankfully separates us from apes.

Asking on the spot leading questions is an important skill and not as easy as it first seems. I think I should be good after all; the interview process was always a critical part of patient care when I was working. And yet, outside the hospital setting I pretty much retreat into my own little world mostly because my experience talking with strangers usually is met with surprised stilted conversation or worse, I discover that I monopolize the dialogue and discover I forgot to ask questions of the other person. Bob is great at small talk and is especially adept at conversing with strangers but even he is overshadowed by the skill of my mom and her ability to ask the right questions, learning much about the other person.

Watching the master at, not the stylist, the customer.

Watching the master at work…no, not the stylist, the customer.

Case in point: Last week Mom needed to get her hair trimmed so we ran over to the local discount stylist shop. As we walked in I noticed immediately how quiet it was. There were three stylists, two were with customers and the third was sweeping the floor. There was no conversation except for hair related questions like, “Do you want it shorter around your ears?” The stylist who had been sweeping invited Mom over where they spent the first few minutes talking about hair, length, etc. But as I sat there watching I saw Mom in a very unassuming manner start really talking to the gal. Before I knew it I overheard that not only was this woman pregnant but she was a high risk and she was openly discussing and even asking advice on all these personal issues with Mom.

It was a wonder to watch. And I was reminded of a conversation with Rebecca where we laughed when I told her how I stood in the same line as Mom a while back (for some unforgotten reason), got my item and walked out. A short time later Mom comes out and starts to tell me about the guy behind her and in that same short line she pretty much had learned his life story.

Come to think of it, I think Mom would have been a good spy with the ability to obtain information divulged during a casual exchange. Or maybe she could have been the ‘good cop’ in a good cop-bad cop scenario, the person you would feel comfortable talking to while the other guy’s questions were offensive causing you to clam up.

All I know is that I am going to start working on my own questioning skills and instead of standing in line reading the latest rag mag maybe I’ll try again and strike up a conversation with the person behind me or maybe I’ll just continue to learn from my mom.

Not only a good interviewer but a great grandma!

Not only a good interviewer but a great grandma!

Paring Down Christmas

christmas tree 11013I meant to share this post after Christmas last year but as soon as the decorations were down I forgot. Today’s post is not about remembering the real meaning of Christmas. There are plenty of others who will write about that. Instead, today I want to tell you how our family lowered the cost and reduced the stress of Christmas.

Are your holiday credit charges now coming due? Maybe you’ll want to put some of these ideas next year to work in your family.

A few years ago after we all opened ALL our packages and began the clean up my mom asked me what everyone had gotten. It was then I realized everyone had gotten so much stuff that nothing really stood out. And it’s no wonder. Like many of you we have gotten used to just picking up things the kids or family needs during the year so by the time Christmas rolls around they really don’t have one particular wish. And because they don’t want one specific thing we made up by just buying all sorts of stuff.

It’s a good thing; a real first world problem, but we parents often are pulled into feeling that we need to buy more and more–just because.

So after Mom and I talked about it I decided our family most likely didn’t need all the stuff we got and most likely we didn’t need to spend all that money.

It all kind of fell into place when talking to the poor college student daughter, she was trying to figure out what to buy for different members of the family. At our next family gathering I shared my revelation and announced that we would pick a maximum dollar amount per person and everyone had to agree to stick to it. Our family picked $20…for no other reason than it was a good round number. To get the family more enthused I explained I would be judging their gifts for cleverness and there would be prizes.

Just a few presents: Photo calendar from Grandma along with popcorn for Matthew, a couple lottery tickets for everyone, a small log representing a load of split wood for the folks, and some crocheted pot holders made by the poor college student.

Just a few presents: Photo calendar made by Grandma, popcorn for Matthew, a couple lottery tickets for everyone, a small log representing a load of split wood for the folks, and some pot holders hand crocheted by the poor college student.

I was surprised at the family reaction. What would have been just an ordinary Christmas suddenly turned into a challenge. We had to really think about what the other person would want or could use. Some in the family decided to make gifts. The poor college student embroidered Christmas designs on towels. Bob made a cookie sheet holder for the cupboard. Some choose to buy food items, the kind that you might want but just put back on the shelf because it costs more than you think you should pay for such a product. Grandma got Bob a giant jar of peanut butter while I got the college student a case of mac & cheese. We put the dehydrator to good use and Grandma got a box of dried vegetables ready to throw in her famous soup. To no one’s surprise Matthew received hero themed presents including coloring books and colored pencils. But even better, Matthew was able to be part of the planning as he crushed a box of soda cans for Grandpa’s recycling project.

Do note that thinking of these ideas might take more time then just buying off the shelf at your local megamart. We started in November the first year and now enjoying having the whole year to plan and shop with these limitations in mind.


My most useful present? According to the family it is a new keyboard with actual letters…

Opening the gifts was fun for all. We laughed at our own cleverness and talked about why we were inspired to give each present. Prizes were awarded for most unique, most homemade, most regifting, etc. I don’t remember what was handed out for prizes but it seems like they were coupons for coffee at McDonalds and the like… something small but fun and usable. Now as the January bills roll around we’re not having to re-budget and eat beans the rest of the month. We’ve discovered a meaningful and fun Christmas does not have to be an extravagant Christmas.

If you decide to try this be sure to let me know how it works for your family. I bet you’ll be as surprised as we were at how much fun it can be.

A Homecoming

When I was very young we lived just outside Anchorage, Alaska. Back then it was a thirty minute drive to the city and when Mom would take us berry picking she always wore her .357 in case of bear or an angry moose. It was a very rural area. But going back now some thirty years later we discovered time waits for no man. Even Alaska experiences urban sprawl so today thanks to the freeway now the city is just a short drive away, grocery stores are just a short hop in the car down the road and while the moose are still plentiful many feel safe enough from the wild animals to tromp through the woods with only a bottle of water—at least within this area.

Only in Alaska?

Only in Alaska?

Can you really go back home? My memories of the childhood home, school, etc. allowed us to find my way to the house. But it was different, after all these years, the roads are paved, the homes look aged, and the surrounding birch trees are no longer saplings but instead stand tall lining the road.

One of my fond childhood memories was when we kids would walk down to the swamp and following the animal trails clambering over mossy green hummocks as we played. It seemed an idyllic place. I took the family down to the swamp, which was still there—only to discover a dark, dank area, filled with stagnant water harboring hungry mosquitoes that we awoke when we walked past. Is it a memory dashed? Or maybe it’s that I don’t see through those rose colored glasses of a five year old. It makes me wonder, maybe my mom couldn’t believe that we kids found the swamp an entertaining place to play.

My mom let me play in this?

My mom let me play in this?

But many of the memories still are the same. The birch trees still have soft velvety leaves. The summer sun still remains high in the sky at midnight. And giant caribou or moose antlers (or often both) still adorn many of the homes in the area. And some in the family still live in their original homes. It is also funny to hear others date major events in their lives on whether they happened before or after the ’64 earthquake. Obviously this event had a huge impact on everyone’s life.

Speaking of family. What a great opportunity to see the kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews all grown up now. Of course, somehow it still seems strange those kids I remember playing with are now grown, many having grandchildren of their own, while the adults of my childhood are now seniors…or nearly so.  For the next few days we will enjoy getting catching up and spending time together.

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There is no good reason to share this picture except for its craziness.

Just Another Day


This week Matthew decided he should mow the lawn. Will wonders never cease?

Sometimes we parents with special needs children go along and don’t realize how different our lives are. I was reminded recently when Rebecca mentioned to some of her friends that she was caring for a special needs girl. She told her fellow students that working as a caregiver was a very good part time job that she could continue to do while in med school and recommended it for those looking for work. But they were hesitant; they had never been around someone with special needs; they didn’t know if they could do the job. Rebecca was surprised but that’s because being around someone with different needs has always been part of her life.

So today I am sharing just a couple incidents that might help you better understand the uniqueness of life at our house.

The M  O  V  I  E

Everybody likes to go to the movies. Right? So does Matthew. But with two distinct differences. The first, you might expect because he has difficulty sharing emotions, is that we do not go to movies that are too intense. Poor Matthew gets so caught up in the movie that if the good guy’s life seems in peril Matthew feels it deep in his soul and doesn’t know how to handle the fear and worry. We always try to have someone preview the movie first. The second thing is actually pretty crazy. There are many movies Matthew doesn’t care to see. But when he decides on one, well that’s the one we have to see first. He doesn’t want to hear about another movie, even though he might like it just as much. It’s first things first. Always. Last year he decided he wanted to see the dumb Smurf movie. And that was it. Even though there were many better movies that he would have liked we had to wait for the Smurfs…which didn’t come out until August.

Actions Have Meaning?

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The heretofore unexciting picture of Mont St. Michel

Sometimes when you have a non-verbal child…okay, actually every day…your child does something that catches your eye. You know it has meaning and you just wish you could understand the reason. Here are two examples from our house this week:

Bob and I were sitting at the kitchen table talking about nothing important, Matthew was on his computer and the television was on, maybe Matlock or a commercial. I wasn’t really paying attention. But suddenly, Matthew leaps up from his chair and runs over behind the couch looking directly at the TV. He held a postcard from a steamboat ride we had taken in his hand. He raised his hands up as though he were going to lead the benediction at church and stood there frozen, arms outstretched for nearly a minute. Finally, he pointed the postcard towards the TV, as if to show either the television or maybe Andy Griffith or the boat on the postcard something. And then walked back to his computer as if nothing had happened.

Yesterday, I was walking on the treadmill while Matthew was watching something on TV when a commercial came on. (Commercials are usually his time to find a drink or chips or just generally wander around because they don’t hold his interest.) But this time he jumped up and ran over to the fireplace. He looked up at the photo of Mont St. Michel and raised his hand up toward the sky with finger pointing. Something like a ‘We’re number one’ pose. He stood there again for a few seconds then went and sat back on the couch.

He has never done either of these things. There was a distinct point to his movements but what? We might eventually figure it out. Or not.

Enough for today.  I’ve rambled on enough and we’re all good here now–as long as we don’t mention the m o v i e . . .

Oh, and by the way, if your child talks and communicates with you, good or bad, you are fortunate. Just think of me the next time he gives you the ‘What For?’ business and give him a hug.