Monday, December 24, 2012

Review of "What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend" by Laura Vanderkam

I've decided Laura Vanderkam's advice is just plain right. Full stop.

I'm a huge fan of her blog, and when I found out she has another time-management book coming out on December 31 called What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend - I immediately knew I had to read it. She was kind enough to share it with me early, and I absolutely loved it. It was the perfect length, it took me under 30 minutes to devour, and I felt I didn't waste even a single moment of any of my own precious 36 waking weekend hours enjoying it.

So, what do "The Most Successful People" do on the weekend, you ask? Well, in general, they do two key things with their time:

1) They have a structure - choosing weekend labor of a different sort than the weekday labor they typically engage in, or to borrow from fitness parlance they "cross train," and --

2) They plan - by making written plans, particularly about how they'll use their weekend downtime, they take full advantage of the happiness-boosting benefits of anticipation.

There is so much great food for thought in Vanderkam's book, and I say this as someone who already makes extremely good use of her time and who totally lacks the procrastination gene. A few tidbits:

On how to plan a weekend: Plan a few "anchor events," such as 3 to 5 things you want to do, sketched in ahead of time. What's something new you've always wanted to do? Dream a little. Write your ideas down so you can finally make those happen.

On household chores: Do them on the weekdays. "You may just spend less time on chores because you have less time." Designate only a small chore time on the weekend if you must. Better yet, hire help.

On kids' activities: "Pare down to the activities they and you enjoy most" with the knowledge that "depth and focus tend to bring more happiness than a scattershot approach where you never get a chance to go all in towards mastery." (Yes, indeed, that sounds refreshingly familiar.) Also, write down ahead of time how you plan to make use of any time you're going to spend waiting at kids' sports events. Mom writes down: "I'll read the whole Sunday times" while she waits four hours for her daughter's swim meet to end. Brilliant.

On Sundays: "Sunday? Miraculously everyone is free." Indeed. That makes it a great window of time to spend with friends you hardly ever see. Why not have people over for an early Sunday dinner?

On why "the simplify Christmas narrative" is wrong:
"But if you’ve got young kids, it doesn’t take long to realize that there won’t be many Christmas seasons when the little ones will race downstairs in the morning to see what Santa brought. They won’t always be eager to bake with you, spilling flour on the counter in their excitement. Eventually they won’t care if you put up a giant tree, or go caroling, or make hot chocolate. You can beg off making a snowman because you’re tired. But there are only a few winters—and only a few days each winter when it’s snowy and you all are home together— that your children will ask to make snowmen with you. Someday, perhaps, you will be staring at the snow from the too simple room of a hospital or nursing home, dreaming of the days when making snowmen with your children was an option. This realization leads to a different question than that suggested by all these tips on simplifying the holidays. Namely, what are you saving your energy for? This is all there is. Anything could happen and you are not guaranteed another snowman. So make a fuss. Make a show. Spend your energy now."
Quite the spot-on argument to carpe diem this Christmas. "Life cannot happen only in the future." So very true. "What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend" by Laura Vanderkam will be released on December 31 (you can pre-order it now). Happy Holidays, all!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Death of My BFF's Father

I'm at that age now where the parents of my childhood friends are reaching the ends of their lives. My BFF's dear father's wake was on Friday; as if that day wasn't already the worst day ever. He had been ill for a long time, the kidney transplants ultimately didn't work. There were at least three occasions this fall where his hospice nurses told his wife, "This is probably his last day of life." He was sent home twice, but he kept bouncing back. He truly wanted to live. The medical bills piled up. The insurance companies were assholes. His wife quit her job to care for him full time. They were best friends, and had such a strong, fun 34-year-long marriage.

Now that he's gone, we're extremely concerned for her, both emotionally and financially. She's showing signs of going through the grief process: Denial, Anger... it's healthy. The anger piece has been oddly healing for my friend and her siblings. Her mom did not refrain from calling a few relatives out on their bullshit. Perhaps "bullshit" is too mild a word for the dynamic in her mom's family-of-origin. For example, mom's sister and her 5 kids spent the week before the wedding funeral (edit: wow-Freudian slip there big time...) eating and drinking her out of house and home - as if a new widow's home is some all-you-can-eat buffet. How galling. You're supposed to show up with food, and you certainly don't help yourself to it. You eat before you go. They're all pretty sure mom's sister's 15-year-old son who was recently expelled from school probably stole a bunch of cash from my BFF's mom's purse. At least he didn't steal the checks that were in there with the cash. Good times.

I was devastated that I could not fly out for the funeral, so I asked my parents to attend the wake on my behalf. They said it was lovely. My BFF's mom was really happy they came. Well-attended wakes and funerals seem to be a real source of comfort to the surviving family.

I also broke out my old school (circa 1982) Miss Manners Etiquette book because it's been ages since I've written a note of sympathy. I didn't know that "sympathy cards" with the condolence sentiment pre-printed on them are a faux pas. Glad I checked before I went to the store. The correct way is to write a personal, heartfelt note on your own stationery. It makes sense - that's what I suppose I'd rather receive on one of the worst days of my life.

My own parents' eventual deaths are amongst my greatest fears. I try to be Zen about it. I try to channel my recollections of how a Buddhist master might consider it, something like this.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Mother-Blaming Nonsense: National Tragedy Edition

How quick we are to judge. Young man commits an unspeakable crime, and what's the media's knee-jerk reaction on the very day of the atrocity, before the facts are in? Blame the mother!

Note the mother-blaming tone of this reporting, from two male journalists for Good Morning America via Yahoo:

"Adam Lanza of Newtown, Connecticut was a child of the suburbs and a child of divorce who at age 20 still lived with his mother...
A relative told ABC News that Adam was "obviously not well."
Family friends in Newtown also described the young man as troubled and described [his mother] Nancy as very rigid. "[Adam] was not connected with the other kids," said one friend.
State and federal authorities believe his mother may have once worked at the elementary school where Adam went on his deadly rampage, although she was not a teacher, according to relatives, perhaps a volunteer.
Nancy and her husband Peter, Adam's father, divorced in 2009. When they first filed for divorce in 2008, a judge ordered that they participate in a "parenting education program."
Peter Lanza, who drove to northern New Jersey to talk to police and the FBI, is a vice president at GE Capital and had been a partner at global accounting giant Ernst & Young..."

Let me get this straight. These male reporters have sprinkled some appallingly inflammatory allegations about their story, so let's check their unspoken pseudo-math here:

"Child of the suburbs" + "child of divorce" + "still lived with his mother" + "'family friends' described mother as 'very rigid'" + "divorce-court-ordered parenting education program in 2008" supposedly = This Whole Tragedy is The Mother's Fault??

Ugh, I get that at horrible times like these, which defy all explanation, people want to desperately cling to their narratives about what they think caused the problem. Perhaps it helps us psychologically deal with the harsh reality that bad things happen.

Broken families and "rigid" mothers seem to be the easy target du jour. ("Rigid?" How dare they? With so-called "family friends" like that, who needs enemies?) How about: WE JUST DON'T KNOW. It's too soon to tell. We may never know.

I don't know, and I suppose I don't have the words either.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Holiday Card PSA

I thoroughly enjoy sending and receiving holiday cards (and it helps my business). But... oy!

Based on the cards I've received so far this month, I feel the need to post another Holiday Card PSA.

1. People -  please, dear God, please have someone proofread what you've written. (Says the blogger who regularly craps all over the rules of grammar.)

2. No, "The Smith's" don't fucking live here. However, "The Smiths" certainly do, and we're so delighted to get your lovely card.

3. It bugs me when the wife who clearly does all the cards her-damn-self puts her husband's name first. I say it again this year: PUT THE WIFE'S NAME FIRST! -- like so:

Happy Holidays!
The Drapers
Betty, Don, Sally, Bobby & Gene

4. I don't care who is in the picture. The recent talk amongst media darlings about whether or not "The Mom Stays in the Picture" is entirely up to every woman to decide for herself. While I make no judgments about such matters, I will share that where my people come from, it's perfectly normal to send cards with pictures of just the kids. 

5. Finally, kudos to those marketing wizards are over at Minted. From the look of things in our mailbox, your sales are through the roof! Hats off to you, because we've already received three of your same card. (It's this card, if anyone is curious.)

Your thoughts? Kvetch to me about holiday cards.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why Our Children Have Never Met Their Grandparents

Our children have never met my husband's parents, and this is by choice. Five years ago, when I was pregnant with our first child, my husband wisely decided to end our relationships with both of his parents. We're so grateful they will not be able to hurt our children, but at the same time, it's a loss. As much as we hate to admit it, yes, it's a loss.

When some people find this out about our family, it's like their heads explode. Clearly, many folks have never had the experience of being related to a person with a truly toxic personality, and I think until they encounter one firsthand (perhaps when their own children marry into a family that has one) they'll never quite grasp the horror of it.

There's the dominant social narrative reflected in the adage "blood is thicker than water" - we should all spend time with our families no matter what; we should just grin and bear it if they hurt or annoy us because they're family, etc. I find this view to be terribly naive. Once a dynamic gets bad enough, I think it actually makes the choice to cut people out reactively easy to make, but not painless.

The first question people have for us - what on earth did DH's parents do to make you want to get them out of your lives?

Let's just say his parents' behavior could fill all of the DSM-IV and then some. The answer is a rather long story. I'll try to be brief. His parents divorced years ago, and are both remarried and each live both far away from us and each other. To me, that makes the fact that they are both now out of our lives even more telling, because we made two independent choices to no longer speak to them.

His father has PTSD from serving in the army in Vietnam, and from all of the many horrible things I'd imagine that entails. He's grappled with alcoholism, and was fired from his final job for berating and assaulting a female coworker when he got angry with her and lost control. Now he lives on disability. None of his three living siblings want anything to do with him. He tells the most obvious, outrageous lies about his ex-wife - to the point it is downright offensive. He's the more obviously toxic one.

We strongly believe his mother suffers from Munchausen Syndrome - she always speaks in a whisper (until she gets angry, then she yells in a normal voice) and despite going to several doctors, none could find anything medically wrong with her. After her sister was legitimately diagnosed with MS, she began claiming to have lupus. Whenever she would visit us (before we had kids), she would claim to be sick and would spend most of the visit in bed, or in the bathroom for hours. But she never wanted us to take her to the ER, nor were there any measurable signs her health was in jeopardy. There was also the time when her 2nd husband called to ask us what her real date of birth was - when they started dating she had claimed to be 35, but she was actually 50. (That's kind of awesomely bad, actually.) Finally, we figured it out.

Years ago, and before his parents' divorce, his mother opened credit cards in both DH and his brother's SS#s and names without their knowledge, then racked up a bunch of charges for what she later claimed were for Christmas presents for them when they were kids. DH did not learn of all the debt she had racked up until college. It was a nightmare trying to restore his credit.

When we told her we were expecting, she asked for our baby's SS# so she could allegedly open a college savings account for him. When we explained that that information was not available until after a baby was born, and would not at all be necessary, she demanded mine. Obviously, I refused to give it to her. Then she threw a fit about us not finding out the baby's sex until birth, and not sharing the names we picked out - a cascade of classic boundary issues. DH tried to reason with her, she was abusive. Eventually it came to this.

The reactions of his parents' families of origin have been very validating to us. His mother's sister made a point to tell us that no one in the family was in any way judging us for cutting his mother out of our lives - they have known her since she was a child, and they understand what a difficult person she is, perhaps due to some unknown psychological illness. His father's SIL said similar things about his dad's condition - they all get it - and we appreciate that they make an effort to stay in touch.

We're also grateful to my parents, who are much better grandparents than they ever were as parents (and BTW, they weren't bad parents by any stretch of the imagination). They want to see our kids and babysit them so we can take trips together. They ask permission before giving them things we might not approve of - they respect our authority as parents. So wonderful. Our kids have never felt that they're missing out on grandparental love.

I'm sure our choices strike some people as cruel-hearted. In fact, some we've told have felt the need to project their own wishes - "Maybe you'll just decide one day to call them up and forgive them, before it's too late." Well, it's a two-way street, isn't it? This experience has definitely given me a lot more empathy for people who don't have happy, intact families - trust me, they have their reasons.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Happier At Home, for the Holidays

Just finished Happier At Home by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. I can't seem to get enough of her. While I understand her tone is not everyone's favorite, I promise if you give her ideas a chance, her very approachable suggestions will inspire you to do some little things to make yourself happier. The bibliography at the back of her book is also a real treasure trove of wisdom and emotional intelligence - I literally photocopied the pages of it from my library copy, and plan to read many of the books she references.

One of Rubin's suggestions I have actually practiced is to mini-decorate my home for the holidays. Honestly, this one was a stretch for me. Rubin's a fan of doing a little holiday breakfast for the family on various holiday mornings - simply putting up something festive as a centerpiece on the breakfast table and then sitting down together as a family before everyone leaves for work and school on the holiday morning. Yeah, no.

Since I don't cook, and mornings are a bit too harried around here already, I decided to amend her suggestion and decorate the mantle for the holidays. So far we've done Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas - all using items we already have. Each time, the kids have jumped in and taken over decorating. So yeah, decorating the mantle has turned into some unexpected family holiday fun for all of us - DH and I like not having to be the one to do it alone, and the kids love calling the shots. Who knew? Gretchen Rubin's right again.

Have I mentioned I'm not a super happy-go-lucky holiday person?

Nevertheless, having two preschoolers has definitely changed my outlook on the December holiday season. They get so excited about decorating, about reading anything Santa-related, about pointing out the "beautiful" lights on people's homes (but lights on the exterior of our house? over my cold dead body.) I never could have predicted the sweetness of the holiday magic these two little kids have brought into my life. Now I get it.

One of our holiday traditions is watching National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation each year. How did I never before notice the hotness that is Beverly D'Angelo? Also, many of the late 80s fashions depicted in the movie are back again - crazy! Is little cousin Ruby Sue wearing a wig? The kids love the Julia Louis-Dreyfus character, Margot the mean neighbor. All day yesterday DS asked DD to ask him: "Why is the floor wet?" so he can respond "I don't KNOW, MARGOT!" Ds also pointed out a house that resembled The Griswold home a little too closely. Cracks me up.

What's happening in your home for the holidays?