2017, family, family vacations, grateful, Thanksgiving

How A Simple Notebook Got My Family On the Same Page This Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays to spend at home with my family. Though my parents no longer live in my childhood home, and though I no longer live 2000 miles from home, there’s still something nostalgic about my homecoming, spending the whole day together in the kitchen, and ending it sitting around the “fancy occasion” dining table of my youth.

This year, however, my family spent Thanksgiving week in Montreal and Toronto (where, notably, Thanksgiving was celebrated last month). I was not thrilled about the travel. I enjoy family vacations, but they invariably bring out our worsts. For example, although our last vacation included a helicopter ride over dormant volcanoes, all I remember is the volcanic eruption of emotions as my mom and I argued in an all-too-small hotel room. (Does that sound like paradise? Because our vacation was in Hawaii.)

I didn’t want our Thanksgiving to be tainted by the worsts.

After losing the battle of whether or not we travel at all, I started to brainstorm ways in which I could guarantee a week we would all be grateful for. I found the answer nestled in one of my favorite psychological principles around gratitude and happiness.

I texted my family the week of the trip asking them to commit to an experiment, and all (almost unquestioningly) agreed.

We met at the airport the morning of the trip. Gathered around a coffee shop table, I announced the two-part experiment:

  1. Outside of flying and drive days, we had four full days in Toronto and Montreal. Each person got to own one day. They could plan it however they liked, and only had to tell us the plan the night before.
  2. Each person received a Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™. Whenever they liked or didn’t like something, they were to write it down in the notebook. We would air gratefulness and grievances each night before looking ahead to the next day.

Takeoff and landing were smooth, but things started to get turbulent as we waited for checked bags. It was late; we were all hungry. The carousel took forever and when we finally exited baggage claim, the group disbanded in every direction. My brother found a phone to call our airport shuttle while I searched for Uber pickup points. My mom walked off in an unnamed direction, and my dad was nowhere to be seen. I could see my brother’s temper rising, and just when I thought he would boil over, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™. “Where’s my pen?” he asked in half-jest. “Follow all posted placards and signs,” he wrote as a grievance (which become a repeated grievance for my mom’s habit of walking off in random directions). I lost it—in a good way. Laughing uncontrollably, I finally got us a ride, we walked across the airport to get in it, and we were on our way.

A critical moment was during our first night, when we established our routine of airing gratitude and grievances (importantly both). The rest of the week, you often heard questions like, “Where’s my notebook?” or “I need to pack my notebook,” or “No this notebook is only for gratitude and grievances.” The notebook became a daily necessity and it was often someone else who commenced the evening ritual of sharing notes.

With each person owning and planning a day, this collaborative moment also allowed for sharing feedback and setting expectations around things we historically fight about in moments of hunger or fatigue—what to eat, how to get from one place to another, when to be ready—the simplest things.

Though plans changed each day, overall, we hit everything on every person’s list, from eating plush bagels and climbing Mont Royal on my brother’s day to taking a family photo at the top of CN tower on my mom’s, to a sibling run, visit to a history museum, and family-prepared Thanksgiving meal on mine, to finally, a Christmas market, art museum, and bookstore on my dad’s.

On our final evening, we discussed grievances for the day—and the week. On this night, unlike the first, there was more gratitude than grievance, and my mom was already planning our next vacation. Of course there had been occasional disputes (usually regarding whether to walk or Uber) and one intense conversation that was unavoidable whether we had been traveling or not. But these were each washed away with the airing and closure of each day, leaving us all with nothing but rosy retrospection.

On the plane back home, I asked each person to reflect on the effect their Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™ had on their vacation experience. For me, the notebooks afforded a platform through which my family could express their feelings in a healthy way (a skill we often lack). They also introduced humor to moments that are historically tense (for example, someone announcing, “Oh my god. I need my notebook,” while everyone else joked about what they might be writing down). The notebooks also gave us a way to thank one another and appreciate little moments that are typically taken for granted. For example, my mom’s Day 2 gratitude, “I like that you made a list and took us to the grocery store. It set us up well for snacks and the Airbnb.” That was enough for me for the week (and was especially helpful when my mom aired her grievances on how I lost my credit card and driver’s license on Day 6).

Now, back home, while I have my lists from the past week, my gratitude can all be summed up in one word: family. I’m grateful for family members that are passionate about their individual views, but come together as a unit when it matters most. I’m appreciative of a family who is open to trying new things. I love that we are light-hearted enough to try simple tricks for increasing happiness and harmony. And I feel lucky that each person leads, first and foremost, with empathy. And while this has likely been there all along, perhaps it is not something I would have recognized while sitting around that dining table from our youth, during a routine Thanksgiving meal.

Christmas, family vacations, friendship

A best friend is a sister destiny forgot to give you.

Many years ago, maybe in the third or fourth grade, one of my friends recited to me what was clearly some recent parental advice: You can choose your friends, but not your family. She meant for this to be a bit of a threat, to warn me that she could easily leave me at any point for a new best friend (such is the plight of a young girl; boys, just take my word for it). To this day, I still remember how hurtful it was for me to hear this from a person who I couldn’t imagine out of my life.

Recently, for reasons not worth discussing, the adage has been gnawing at me.

In December of my freshman year of college, I was informed of the Christmas plans that had been made for me: my parents, brother, and I were road-tripping to Palm Springs. What? Just us four, nobody else? I asked. What’s wrong with that? My dad retorted. I don’t know. It would just be more fun if some friends came too I responded matter-of-factly (I know what you’re thinking, but give me a break, I was 18). That Christmas was the first time I saw my brother since having gone to college. My stomach still hurts when I think of the side-splitting laughter he and I experienced as we spent a family vacation in what, effectively, was a retirement community. If I had to put a timestamp on it, that Christmas was when my brother and I went from being just siblings to being friends.

Through middle school, my uncle and aunt visiting from Colorado defined Christmas for me. As in, it wasn’t Christmas without them. Some years, it was the only time we saw them. They relished the opportunity to escape to good weather and good company for the holidays and we absolutely loved having them. For no particular reason, the tradition dwindled, and today, is extinct. The blood-relationship isn’t obliging either party to change that.

In the sixth grade I wrote a poem about friendship. Though I was extremely proud of it at the time, I know now that it was extremely naive. Chock-full of similes, I compared friendship to things like a “sand crab that pinches you when it’s mad.” As I’ve made and strengthened friendships over the years, I’ve redefined my schema for a friendship. To me a strong friendship is unconditional, not transactional. It’s one where regardless of time or distance, you can easily pick up where you left off. And most ironically, the strongest friendships feel familial, turning my favorite adage into a bit of a paradox.

As we grow older and expand our networks, the line between friends and family becomes rather hazy. You start to realize that friends are the family you get to choose.

This year, I’ll be spending Christmas with my brother, grandparents, and another family that I consider to be part of my own. When it comes to people, titles of relationships are almost meaningless. It’s the feeling we get being in eachothers’ company.

In search of a moving way to conclude this post, I did some haphazard Googling only to find a simultaneously eloquent and corny quote that sums up what I’ve attempted to capture above. That, the best part of life is when your family becomes your friends and your friends become your family. It sounds kind of silly, but when you really stop to think about how it applies to your own life, it’s pretty damn cool.

Wishing you and yours (that’s family and friends), a very merry Christmas.

family vacations, haircuts, siblings

A Friend Is A Brother Who Was Once A Bother

When I was eight years old, my family went on a road trip of sorts along the East Coast. “Of sorts” because an eight-year-old, a five-year-old, a man who doesn’t believe in rest stops, and a woman who can’t sit still for more than five minutes isn’t exactly the formula for the world’s greatest road trip. So it may not be surprising that somewhere between the U.S. Capitol and Blacksburg, Virginia, my brother reached across the back seat and scratched my face. I still have the scar to prove it. Before you feel any sympathy towards me, let me just say that in some capacity, I’m sure I deserved it.

My relationship with my brother, like that of most siblings, has ridden life’s roller coaster (Boy Meets World FTW). When my brother was born, I was thrilled. After all, in the eyes of a three-year-old, what’s not to love about a one-of-a-kind real-life doll?

…And then the terror years struck. We were out of control. We would get into physical fights that could have been aired on WWE. Then, after the war-zone years were the Olympics years — everything was a competition. My brother, three years younger than I, competed with me for everything from parental attention to riding a bike to playing piano. Needless to say, tempers ran high.

We also had our (and seventeen other siblings’) share of verbal spats. I remember one particular Saturday morning, my brother and I were at Schroeder’s for a haircut. We were making a scene as usual and I was winning (as usual?). The barber looked at me and said in the most matter-of-fact tone, “Enjoy this now. Because soon he’ll be taller than you and it’ll all be over.”

And it happened. One fine day I looked at him and realized that he was taller than me. But it wasn’t all over; it was just beginning. Somewhere in his growth spurt (or my stunt?), maybe it was in discussing our nervousness about the upcoming piano recital, maybe it was in his silent appreciation that I never told my parents when I saw him on time-out on the playground, maybe it was in my helping him with last minute projects or in his tutoring me in Calculus, we became friends.

Ten years after that fateful East Coast trip, we found ourselves on a better coast, but still on a road trip, and I was still in pain. Though this time, it wasn’t from the searing pain of a scratch on my face, but from the stomach cramps that define a good laugh.

My parents have always told us stories about their siblings when they were younger and living together, and as my brother heads off to college, I worry that those “younger days” have come to an end for us as well.

But as I sit here at the dining table that was both our battlefield and our peace conference, I’m realizing that the end of the younger days doesn’t negate the fact that we are siblings. Considering we used to video chat with each other while sitting together at this table, video chatting from our respective colleges or homes won’t be much different (video is the way of the future). Family is family, and distance has nothing on that bond.

Edit: Actually, distance has one thing on that bond: Now when I receive calls at 5 AM EST to edit an essay, it’ll be 5 AM for him as well.