People are constructed by their habits, over a long period of time. James Clear, authority on habits and author of Atomic Habits, puts it like this: “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” There’s one particular line from Atomic Habits that has stuck with me: “You get what you repeat.” Simple, and true.
Clear asserts that habits are integral to your personal identity, but it’s more than that – other people will form an opinion of you based on the habits they see.
We are especially likely to be aware of the habits of the people (and animals) we live with. Our family, flatmates, partners, children, pets. In this period of history where we are frequently encouraged to stay within the bounds of our property, within the architecture of our walls – the habits of others are more in focus than ever.
I’ve been trying to whittle down my own bad habits and up the frequency of the good ones – to progress towards a better average. And try to encourage good habits in my children. And try to train my pets. All to varying degrees of success.
The trick is identifying the habit – good or bad – in the first place.
Sometimes that’s the hardest part.
Choose your preferred parent
Recently over dinner our kids Neko (10) and Ida (6) started asking questions about what happens when parents split up. My wife Vic and I assured our kids that we were all good and that this was not going to happen, but they were still curious about the hypothetical practicalities: Who would live with whom? How would that be decided? How would the time be divvied up?
“I’d go with Mama,” said Neko, “because she can cook.”
There was a long pause while both children racked their brains for a reason to choose me.
“Papa buys us stuff,” said Ida. As though I merely purchase their love with toys and trinkets. Ida looked at me and smiled, to remind me that the single tick in my column so far had been added by her.
“Yeah, Papa’s the one who buys me Cokes,” said Neko, as though I am the junk-food counterpoint to a mum who prioritises healthy food. I’ve never bought either child a Coke. This wasn’t praise, it was an attempt at subliminal manipulation.
Take note, parents: If you’re not careful, your kids’ summation of you will be based on the most surface-level observations of your habits imaginable. Your kids don’t see you prepare food that often? You are essentially incapable of cooking in their eyes. You buy them a piece of cake at a cafe every now and then? You will now be considered the illicit junk-food pipeline in a life otherwise saturated with the healthiest of the healthy.
Witness the fitness
Our whole family does taekwondo. It started with the kids, then my wife Vic joined, and then finally I could no longer tolerate just sitting on a seat watching while the rest of them spun around, kicking pads and smiling their heads off.
Recently I returned to taekwondo training after a few weeks out sick. The loss of the edge of my fitness felt stark, like my max settings were temporarily unavailable.
About three quarters of the way through that first session we had to do reaction work, where someone holds the pads for you and calls out random moves you have to do as fast as you can. We were to do 30 seconds, with a 10-second break, then 20 seconds and another 10-second break, and then 10 more seconds. Our instructor Eisa held the pads for me.
I knew I was spent by the end of the first 30 seconds, my lungs heaving, heart threatening to vibrate my chest apart. I pushed through the next 20, but started to slow. The final 10 were particularly bad seconds, and after that I had to go sit outside to let the chill autumn air counter my instinct to vomit.
When I came back inside everyone was taking a short break, and Eisa walked over to see what was up.
“I pushed myself so hard I nearly vomited,” I said. I don’t know what I expected. A medal, maybe?
“Only ‘nearly’?” said Eisa, smiling. “That means there was still some left.”
I’ve always seen myself as a reasonably fit person, but this moment called that into question. What if I’ve never actually been that fit, but only stubborn, unwilling to back down and accept the limits of my own body? It certainly would explain why, although I would do well in cross-country races at high school, I would inevitably collapse over the finish line, not just coast to a stroll and catch my breath as I would see other runners do. On cold winter nights at half time in a field hockey game, I was always scarlet-coloured and radiating so much heat my team mates would joke that I was “smoking”.
I thought I was fit, that I just “ran hot”. But maybe I’ve been an inefficient machine all along, and the only thing I was tuning all this time was my own stubbornness.
There’s a running joke in our house that when my wife Vic (a crazy cat lady in training) browses for cats online, she sets the filter to “Most expensive” first. Vic’s house cat breed of choice is the Oriental Shorthair, related to and sometimes known as Siamese.
Oriental Shorthairs have a distinctive, sleek look, but they’re also different to more common breeds in other ways. They’re fussier, and precious about things being just so. Our red-spotted Oriental, Mango, won’t deign to use the cat door. He’ll stand in front of it and yowl until the door is opened for him like he’s a prince, and he’ll do the same when he wants back in. Our black witch cat Wanda won’t eat any food that’s been in the bowl for longer than ten minutes. She’ll go hungry and lose weight rather than eat a bit of meat that’s been sitting there for 15 minutes. Freshness is paramount.
They’re posh cats, essentially.
For such a pair of pretentious felines, they have some strange, coarse habits. Wanda is nearly a year older than Mango, and probably considered herself the sole royalty of the household before Vic entered the house one day with Mango. Wanda avoided this new, goofy orange kitten and hissed when he came anywhere near her.
Mango was completely unperturbed in the face of Wanda’s aggression, either used to older cats behaving badly (he came from a breeder and was around lots of other cats early in life) or blissfully unaware of the etiquette of entering another animal’s domain. From what we’ve observed to date, he does seem a simple-minded fellow.
After a while the two cats started to chase each other about the house, an activity which seemed fun and innocent much of the time, but would sometimes end with Mango on his back in submission, ears pinned back in max cat defence mode, mewing for help.
Wanda didn’t seem to realise that this juvenile male cat would outgrow her in less than a year. Or maybe she did, which is why she started to get competitive about food. (Was she trying to stunt his growth?) The two bowls would get filled, and Wanda would wolf hers down and make to eat Mango’s as well, despite the fact that she has always been such a prissy eater. For a while it wasn’t unusual for her to vomit from the effort of trying to eat her rival to dust.
Starving Mango out didn’t work, and Wanda eventually stopped trying to eat him out of house and home. Mango in fact developed such a fondness for food that his sleek Oriental form has now literally gone pear-shaped. They don’t chase each other around so much. Wanda probably doesn’t want to risk Mango rolling over on her.
At night they’ve now taken on a strange new ritual. They’ll pace around the coffees on the floor beside Vic and me, and scrape the wooden floor around it, in the same way they’d bury their business in a litter box or outside in the dirt. Apparently it’s an instinctive action to cover up an offensive smell, but not a very useful one – they don’t seem to click that they’re just scraping at wood and air, and that the coffee smell isn’t going anywhere.
They’ll keep doing this until we pick up the cup and get rid of the coffee by drinking it.
Cats are such contrary, strange creatures. Especially the posh ones.
The dragon chicken
I want to start by saying that I reckon our chickens have it pretty good. They have a sizeable enclosed run, a couple of cozy coops, access to vegetation to peck at, and a continual flow of food. Not just grain, either; they get all our kitchen scraps and some from our neighbours. And the neighbours’ scraps can be pretty gourmet: berries, pizza, rice, bread, cheese. The kind of stuff our chickens go nuts for.
But I do wonder sometimes, when I head down with an egg container in one hand and a bucket of scraps in another, what the chickens make of all this, what they’re chatting about in their little huddle as I enter their run.
Perhaps it goes something like this:
“Hey, hey, hey, listen to me, I’ve been thinking. Have any of you ever noticed something about the eggs?” says Carrot, one of the bigger chickens. The others cock their heads this way and that.
“What do you mean?” says Firefeet, one of the small, black “heritage” chickens who lays the blue eggs.
“Well, hey, I could swear I laid an egg yesterday, but after the food came, I went back and there was no egg. So today I laid another one. I’m getting this weird feeling of... déjà vu.” says Carrot.
“Hmmm,” says Firefeet, “now that you mention it – how come there are never any baby chickens?”
“I... hadn’t really even thought of that since that rooster left,” says Carrot. “Oooh! Here comes the food! I warn you all: if there is any bread or cheese I will fight you for it.”
“What were we talking about again?” says Firefeet.
“Dunno,” says Carrot. “But food’s up!”
- – — – -
For a while last spring, there were fewer eggs than usual in the laying boxes, which are accessible from a side hatch in the large coop where most of the chickens roost for the night. Typically we’d get 8-10 eggs a day, but for the previous couple of weeks I’d only collected 3-4.
I assumed this was part of the natural ebb and flow until I went to clean out the main coop one day, and I discovered a pile of eggs right at the back, where it’s dark and hard to reach. The eggs were stacked high in an unstable pyramid; dissenting eggs had rolled away from its edges. Atop the pile, guarding this treasure, was a black chicken whose name I couldn’t recall (the children named all the chickens and I couldn’t keep up), but I renamed it Dragon Chicken, right there and then.
The other chickens started to gather around and bok bok inquisitively around my ankles. I think that once they could see what I had seen they all knew that the heist was up.
I could just barely reach the egg hoard, resting one knee on the floor and stooping underneath the roosting branches criss-crossed inside the space. Dragon Chicken squawked and flapped her wings a little, but then scooted off behind me to see what food I’d brought with me. Many of the eggs were manky, and of indeterminate age. I had to return with multiple egg containers – there were around four dozen eggs in total.
I cleaned out all the poo, and added fresh matting and wood shavings both to the coop and laying boxes. There are three laying boxes, but the chickens seem only to want to lay in the far right one. And now, it seems, in the back corner of the main coop.
After that, the chickens all ceased hoarding the eggs. From time to time I’ll still find a random egg laid in the wood pile, or underneath the coop, but after the great treasure pile theft, the hens just went back either to endlessly scheming but never acting – or just pecking for insects and not giving the eggs a second thought.
Now, where did I put that drink?
I found Vic’s reusable cup at the end of our street, slightly dented and with some of the green paint scratched off, but otherwise intact, coffee still trapped inside. I figured that it would have slid off the car roof at the first corner on the school run, and I was right. It was just lying there in the gutter.
The cup had been there almost the whole day and the coffee inside was still hot, which is actually a bit of a design flaw of these Frank Green reusable cups. A hot drink needs to cool down to an acceptable temperature in order to drink it, and these cups are such good insulators they refuse to let that happen.
When I was a kid, Mum was forever putting things on top of the car and forgetting them, but it was generally the old glass milk bottles or a wallet. A milk bottle or wallet that came off somewhere on the journey was lost forever, but what surprised me as a kid was how often we’d hop out of the car and the milk bottle would still be there, despite all the corners we’d rounded and the hills we’d climbed.
I wasn’t surprised that Vic had left her forest-green coffee cup on the roof – she’s absent-minded when it comes to hot drinks. I’m forever finding a half-drunk cup of coffee, tide marks staining its walls, beside a pot plant, on a sideboard, or upturned in the front of the car, after it was placed in front of the rear backing camera which pops up when you put the car in reverse.
It just happens to work out that I am good at hot drinks. I’m no culinary genius like Vic is, but I can make a tea that an English person will nod in agreement to, or a French-press coffee that an aficionado accustomed to espresso will find acceptable. This is partly the result of being good at drinking the hot drinks, and thus getting lots of practice. I am a chain drinker, a hot-water boiler, a tea-bag dunker, a coffee grinder. I am the hot drink guy. Which is just as well for Vic, since she has a deep desire to have a hot drink in her hand but somehow lacks the organisation to make that happen on a regular basis. This is the very best possible convergence of habits. My favourite eddies of downtime are over a hot drink sitting around with Vic and the family.
A few weeks back, on a rare occasion where we didn’t have anywhere particular to be first thing in the morning, Vic was lying in and I brought in a second coffee just as she was finishing the first.
“If I just keep lying here and drinking these coffees,” Vic asked, “will you keep coming in with more?”
“Yes,” I said. “I guess I will.”