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.

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change, communication, family, Full House, holidays

How the Car Rides Of My Youth Drove My Ability To Have Important Conversations

I spent much of my childhood being driven around by my parents. This would be a poignant metaphor, but my statement is literal. If my mom wasn’t driving me to piano, singing class, or soccer, and my dad wasn’t driving me to one of several dance classes, I was accompanying my parents as they drove my brother to one of his various extra-curricular activities. Getting home each night felt like the end of a marathon. Though we all sat together at the table to eat dinner, my objective was always to eat as quickly as possible so that I could start doing my homework. And while my parents would try to inspire good conversation —asking us how our days were, what we learned, or who we spent time with—my brother and I were always too tired or too stressed to contribute anything of significance.

Very infrequently, when everyone was tired enough and we were in need of entertainment, my mom allowed us to turn on an episode of some “family show” (basically Full House or The Cosby Show) that we could enjoy together over dinner. My most vivid memory of these shows was that no matter what would happen in the episode, it would almost always end with the air cleared, an honest heart-to-heart between parent and child and some arguably valuable lesson. Though my family witnessed these moments together, they were not ones we replicated. Over time, it became clear to me that this was a distinct difference between my family and the ones I saw on television.

Coming from a culture where emotions aren’t openly expressed or discussed, I was never comfortable sitting at the foot of the bed admitting that I messed up and telling my parents that I loved them while music played in the background. It didn’t help that I was so private with my emotions in general (all my emotions lived in my journal). While I sometimes wished I could be “normal” and have open and honest conversations with my family like the ones I saw on television, I never knew how to initiate the moment, and when I tried, I felt like my stomach was swallowing itself.

So instead, when something really needed to be communicated, I let it fester until the last possible moment, then dropped it into conversation at the least opportune time. For example, the time I told my dad that I failed my first math quiz at my new school and that he needed to sign my notice of “low exam score.” I grabbed him as he was running out the door to a meeting. Choosing such moments allowed me to escape the palpable discomfort of a Danny Tanner teaching moment.

Or so I thought.

This past Christmas weekend, my family and I shared a number of car rides. It had been a while since the four of us were in a car together. We were seated in the same positions we always were in my youth: my dad driving, my brother behind him, my mom in the passenger seat, and me behind her. Our rides were unexpectedly long, and as was equally unexpected, I found myself initiating important conversations. Together, we shared opinions, stories, and concerns (and jokes). And in some ways, despite all that has changed over the years, the comfortable feeling of our sitting together in the car, just like old times, being open with one another, was the real holiday magic. All we needed was some Full House closing music.

The openness of these car conversations reminded me a lot of the ones we shared during my childhood.

What I didn’t realize growing up (and perhaps this demonstrates my mom and dad’s parenting genius) was that we were still having important conversations. They just weren’t happening in the common spaces of our home. It was in those frequent drives to soccer practice or those long drives to dance lessons during which I truly opened up to my parents. To me, car conversations were far more approachable than those in any other place. In a car, nobody could leave the conversation, both parties were focused, there was a definite end to the conversation (arriving at a destination), and no matter where our conversation took us, we were always moving forward.

This time of year can be overwhelming with its influx of cultural and social media presenting people’s picture perfect lives. Much like family television shows of the 90’s, they shed light on how different our own lives are from the ones we see around us. But the power of my car conversations give me confidence that this difference really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you find ways to connect with the people around you in a way that is comfortable for you. Whether that’s at the foot of the bed or with your foot on the gas pedal.

 

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Christmas, Christmas presents, experiences, family, gifts, happiness, parents, psychology, the Atlantic, things

How to Give the Gift of Happiness

Handmade Gift, c. 1995

Before curling up in my parents’ bed and listening for the reindeer hooves they insisted they could hear, I spent the Christmas Eves of my childhood locked in my room making and wrapping presents for them. My parents were my only means of making purchases, so no store-bought present could surprise them. From the year of the handmade ornaments to the year of the coupon book (breakfast in bed, anyone?), I never stopped dreaming of the day I could finally get my parents a “real present.” I defined a real present as one I could buy, wrap, and put under the tree.

My gift-insecurity was by no means driven by my parents; they were happy with any (or no) present. But as I would sit there clutching my new Tamagotchi or staring at that Razor scooter, I couldn’t rid myself of my disappointment. I wanted to badly to reciprocate their gesture with some thing that my parents might have really wanted.

This year, though I had the physical and financial means to surprise my parents with a “real present,” Christmas Eve was no different from those of my childhood. Locked in my bedroom staring at my childhood boxes of markers and crayons, I brooded over what to wrap and place under the tree for my parents. Witnessing the scene from a distance, kid-me would have surely been disillusioned by adult-me.

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art, creativity, family, friendship, grateful, passion, Passion Company, social pressure, Thanksgiving

Why Simple Concepts Deserve More Attention Than Complex Ones

Be present. With us, not with your phone. Forget small talk. Talk about your dreams. Love yourself. Play. Engage with the art and creativity around you. 

These were the instructions I received hours before attending a perfectly San Franciscan event with three friends. Hosted by The Passion Company, the event showcased projects and lectures by people who found ways other than money and status to define themselves.

Though I wasn’t presenting, I was nervous to attend. I felt anticipatory insecurity about how I would measure up to other attendees who had surely discovered, you know, the meaning of life and stuff. The feeling doubled when my friend and I walked through the door.

A girl in a Renaissance gown asked for my name and checked me in. “Head over to that table with nametags on it. Write down your name and one thing you are grateful for about yourself.”Ugh. Why can’t they just ask for a name like a normal event?

I walked to the table and stared at the blank nametag with blank thought. I knew that others would write insightful, perfectly crafted adages on their nametags. Trying to push past the creative paralysis, I racked my brain. I am grateful for my optimism, but I thought it too fluffy for such a sophisticated crowd. Falling back on ever-reliable alliteration, I went through adjectives that start with “R” like my first name. Something stuck.

Rationally optimistic.

“Oh that’s good,” my friend said next to me, while she wrote hers.

Creating communities.

“Oh that is good,” I said to her.

We pinned our nametags onto our shirts (pity the man who still uses stick-on nametags), then started to schmooze.

Nametags were reliable conversation starters and within moments, we were talking to a native New Yorker who was grateful for his family. “I know it sounds silly,” he apologized glancing at my friend and my nametags, “but I am grateful for them! I was just talking to my sister before I walked in.”

He didn’t need to apologize. In fact, I was grateful for his nametag. The one simple word “family,” was immediately relatable to me. This is because the word was accompanied by a deep and universal concept. Thinking of my love for my own sibling, I instantly felt connected to this man, and more importantly, at ease at this event. I stopped worrying about the potential of mismatched intellectual planes. I was as similar to these people around me as I was different.

My nametag was much less relatable than that of “family” man. Mine couldn’t create community. As I continued to walk around, I received eye-raises and Oh, that’s good!‘s, but the slightly complicated phrase was incapable of forming a human connection the way “family” could.

I left the event feeling hokey, not because of others, but because of myself.

Two weeks after the event, I was lying in bed scrolling through pictures on my phone. I came across one of my recently deceased pup. I posted it to Instagram. The moment I pressed “Share,” my eyes welled with tears.

I cried for an hour.

Finally, a familiar tritone brought me out of it. The message was chillingly perfect:

The next day, I received this message from another friend who recently moved away from San Francisco:
And then, at what would have been 11:30 PM her time, another friend FaceTimed me. “I might fall asleep on this call,” she started, “but I just needed to see you this weekend. All weekend I just felt like talking to you. I feel like you might be sad. Are you sad?”These are just three of the uncountable, beautiful friendships that define my life.

As simple as it sounds, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my friends. The depth of these relationships goes much further than the simplicity of the word.Though I’ve always had friends and though I’ve always loved them, this year, I’ve needed friends. Through the good, but also through some bad and ugly. My friends kept me standing on my two feet then pushed me forward. And through it all, each played a different but necessary role: my fan, my therapist, my parent, my tough love, my unconditional love, my inspiration, my motivation, my pillar. My raison d’être. My friends that had always just been there in the background, were now the entire foreground.

If I could go back and do it again, that nametag would read, “My friends.

Sometimes, we feel so pressured to leave an impression that we unnecessarily complicate things. Those nametags taught me that simplicity is approachable, relatable, and powerful. Simplicity makes an impact. Simplicity is authentic.

Thank you for sharing your shoulders, your smiles, and your love. Here’s sending all of that back to each of you.

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adulthood, alone time, ambition, belonging, birthdays, family, growing up, turning 26, writing

4 Things I Couldn’t Admit To Myself Until I Turned 25

I turn 26 this week.

In some ways, twenty-five flew by with little to report. But in others, it transformed me:

I got to know the person I will spend the rest of my life with.

While this is unsurprising given my age, it is surprising given that I do not have a significant other.

The last fifteen months comprise the longest I have been in the same place with the same job ever. Because my world was too-frequently-changing before (semester to semester, rotation to rotation, city to city), because I myself was changing too frequently before, and perhaps because I fundamentally was too young to understand — and accept — them before, twenty-five was my first opportunity to recognize key qualities about this person I see and spend time with every single day.

This person is me.

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4 Things I am Finally Old Enough to Know (and Admit) About Myself:

1. I crave alone time

Growing up, I had an extra-curricular obligation almost everyday, including weekends. Between my activities and homework, I always had a reason to reject social invitations if I didn’t want to hang out. I was never avoiding anyone specific, though. My dance team and coursework served the same purpose in college, and soon after graduating, I voluntarily undertook a book-writing project which mandated hours of undistributed focus.

These artificial reasons for being “busy,” were actually my need to spend time alone, doing things that I enjoy, just, by myself. It felt abnormal to say, “I want alone time,” especially because I never heard anyone say it to me.

Sometime during twenty-five, a switch flipped. I started to identify my need for this special time and went so far as to plan it into my life (mostly weekends). I aggressively defend alone time. It recharges me for future social interaction. Notably, it is not always productive. Sometimes I just want to sit on my couch, alone, on a Saturday night, and watch a television airing of The Parent Trap (even if it’s the Lindsay Lohan version) for the millionth time.

And though I occasionally slip into the need to rationalize it (work, errands, fatigue), I have finally come to terms with saying “I need alone time,” without caring how my statement will be received.

2. I am not superhuman

Earlier this year, I wrote an article on Medium that, by some stroke of luck, went viral. Wanting to make the most of the magic before it wore off, I immediately took on multiple simultaneous writing projects: Going for a double-hitter on Medium, submitting variations of my article to publications, enrolling in a writing course, maintaining my personal blog, and starting to write for a non-profit.

All this on top of an actual job.

For the next two months, thinking about writing, a historically therapeutic hobby for me, filled me with insurmountable stress.

The pieces I wrote during this time were haphazard. After two good-but-not-great Medium articles, two rejections from VentureBeat, two rejections from children’s book publishers, and a draft returned to me with more red than black, I finally stepped back.

Though its virality will always puzzle me, that article’s strength came from the fact that it was my sole focus when it was being created (outside of work). I put a lot of (very awake) brain and heart into it — without working on seven other articles at the same time.

Humans accomplish more (and better) with less and I am no exception to that rule.

3. I am family-first

I lived at home for twenty-six months after graduating college. My parents assured me it would lighten the load of my student loans, but I was too naive to see that. I pitied myself for sacrificing “fun” and “youth” by not living in a glamorous city with “everyone else.” When I finally moved to San Francisco, I likened it to liberation from confinement.

For months after moving, visits home were accompanied by an uncomfortable anxiety of all that I was missing in the city. Hadn’t those twenty-six months been enough?

This past May, I went to dinner with a friend whose family was struggling through financial and health hardships. She expressed the difficulty of living so far from them. I listened, silently ashamed that I sometimes felt inconvenienced by the geographical proximity to mine.

One morning just a few weeks later, I was asked to come home for a family meeting. On this particular day, it meant begrudgingly rejecting an opportunity to spend time with a boy I liked. In that family meeting, however, I was irreplaceable.

My family’s need for me to be home persists, but the visits feel less mandatory. Instead, I voluntarily leave the city to spend evenings, weekends, and long weekends with my family, even if it means forgoing trips to Big Sur or wine country. I can’t be mentally present anywhere else when I know my family would benefit most from my physical presence.

When I lived at home, I believed I was happy and comfortable despite living with my parents. I was embarrassed to be living there. With perspective, I see this as childish. I feel adult enough now to accept how much my parents’ happiness fuels my own, and how lucky I am to live just a train ride away.

4. I want to belong

This was my first year living in San Francisco during Bay to Breakers. When non-friends asked me about my plans, I said that it “wasn’t my thing,” but that I “might do something with my friends.” I didn’t actually have plans or invitations to do anything, and this didn’t bother me — until the day of.

My neighborhood was part of the Bay to Breaker route. As I walked through and past groups of friends I was surprised to find myself wishing I was part of one of them (some more than others). I was an outsider, not just to a particular group of friends, but also to a shared city experience where, but for a day, rules and reality were ignored.

Facebook and Instagram were relentless, exposing groups of happy friends sharing the day together.

It wasn’t a fear of missing out (FOMO), but simply feeling left out (FLO?) despite my belief that this event was “not me.” That afternoon, when my hair stylist asked me if I participated in Bay To Breakers, I responded that “we” had enjoyed watching the crowds. There was no “we.” It was just me.

That was when I realized how even my strong sense of self and individuality needs to be one with the masses every now and then.

***

These lessons surely aren’t secrets to life and they likely aren’t unique to me. But they are definitely not applicable to everyone.

The most important “facts of life” are facts about yourself. You will spend the rest of your life with yourself — get to know each other.

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