Making it look easy

This past Monday was the first week back at school for my husband (a teacher) and my son, who’s in fourth grade. During summers and holiday breaks, my husband does a ton of housework and yardwork, and he takes our son to a plethora of activities, all of which I appreciate as someone with a demanding job (I work in the IT field, and 40 hour weeks are short weeks for me).

When school is in session, however, all that comes to a complete halt. To husband’s credit, he does the daycare pickup and dinner on the nights when I’m working late or at Toastmasters, but I am responsible for 2/3 of the laundry, the majority of the housework, nearly all the cooking and 100% of the morning routine. On Thursday nights and a least every other weekend, I am, for all intents and purposes, a single mom.

Every time a new semester approaches, I panic inside. This year, though, I am determined to find shortcuts, tricks, and outright cheats to make it somewhat easier on myself – and to make myself appear awesome! Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

The 20 Minute Challenge. This was borne out of the realization that, with three of us living in the house, I could get an hour’s worth of work in 20 minutes by making it worth everyone’s while. I thought I had invented this as it pertains to housecleaning, but it’s already out on the interwebs. I run mine as a true competition though, with fabulous cash and prizes a prize for the winner of the challenge.

How it works: Each of the three of us chooses a room (living, dining, kitchen, bathroom) and during the Challenge, we compete to see who ends up with the cleanest living area. Winner gets his or her choice of family activity afterward. We play music during the Challenge, and often will take turns choosing the next song to be played (I have an iPad with a speaker dock and will often pick a song out of my iTunes library or a YouTube video). During the final few minutes, we play the finale of the William Tell Overture. The key is for the Challenge to be FUN. Kids will sometimes lose interest in this, but yelling at them for not participating guarantees they won’t want to take part again. If only the adults end up participating, that’s fine.

Enrichment Night. Alas, I thought this was my own unique invention as well, but a quick Google search proved me wrong. My twist on this is that every participant (on Thursday nights, this is my son’s and my special thing) chooses something he or she wants to learn more about and then just does it. This past Thursday, for example, we learned about  Emotional Freedom Techniques (not your usual topic, but we had a need for it this week). Future weeks may include one or both of us practicing stop motion animation – there’s an app for that – learning Italian or practicing bass guitar.

How it Works: There are more resources out there for learning subjects for free than I have room to list, but some that come to mind are Kahn Academy, MIT, eHow and, of course, YouTube. Simply pick your subject and get started!

Meal Planning. For my family, meal planning typically goes something like this: Saturday afternoon or Sunday night, go to the store, spend about $100 to $120 buying whatever looks good, take it home. Run completely out of food three days later and make an emergency trip to the closest store on the way home and spend another $75 to $80. Go out for lunch and dinner several times that week whenever you can’t come up with something to make or you forget to bring a lunch to work. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I asked Mr Google for help in this area, after being aghast at just how much we have been spending on food for the three of us, and one of the first results was Veggie Meal Maker. For me, being able to “shop” for recipes, adjust the serving size, and generate a shopping list automatically was just what I need (they also have a mobile site, which I used when I went to Trader Joe’s in lieu of printing out the list).

Now, if you’re not vegetarian or want to see what else is out there, a search for “meal planner app” returned over 400,000 results.

How it Works: Review the list of suggested recipes (or browse), drag the ones you want onto the calendar, click “Shopping List” and print to bring with you to the store or pull up the mobile app on your phone while shopping. Last weekend I spent about $130 and got more than a weeks’ worth of groceries. There are no “weird” or hard to find ingredients and the recipes are crowd-sourced, similar to various cooking websites. Each one requires about 5-15 minutes of prep time and 10-40 minutes cooking time. I’ve had delicious foods such as pancakes and Indian curry and have not only saved time and money but I’ve been able to more easily hit my daily calorie budget.

What about you? What are your dirty little secrets for making it look easy?


No song unsung, no wine untasted

A couple of years ago, I posted a blog entry about a friend of mine who was moving far away and I was incredibly sad about it. That blog, to date, is my post popular post, and it seemed to resonate with readers who felt, as I did, that… gosh, friendship is so hard as an adult.

Several months later, my friend moved back and I realized what it was that truly bothered me: I hadn’t outright told her how much I was going to miss her, hadn’t made the most of our time together, and I vowed not to make the same mistake again.

This year, 2012, brought to light for me the need to not only tell people what they mean to you but to DO IT NOW, first when my father-in-law passed away, then when a friend died and her husband casually let us know. In my father-in-law’s case, he really never approved of me, and my husband and I went years without speaking to him. We really should have taken the time to clear the air with him while we had the chance. When the time came for him to go (or, rather, he decided it was his time; believe me, he ran that show), he called in each of his kids and their spouses to speak with them privately. Except me: I was at work and had been told to stay home.  He had been somewhat active on Facebook – yes, 75-year-olds use social media – and the very last thing ever posted to his wall was me wishing him happy birthday two weeks before his death. Aside from that, I didn’t get to say goodbye.

My friend Susan and I had been coworkers a long, long time ago. She was a quality assurance engineer at the software company we worked at, and I was a technical recruiter. Her husband owned a music store and worked as a police officer in the small town my husband and I live in. We had talked, off and on, for well over a decade about having dinner at their house and somehow life happened instead until one day she was gone. I never saw her socially after 2001 (just briefly, while she was on a ride-a-long with her husband) and, again, no final goodbye.

Part of my issue with this is that, sometime during my formative years, I convinced myself that people are irritated by my presence. Therefore, I am very good at giving them their space, which is often interpreted as disinterest. My husband has vocalized this when I don’t reply to an email right away. So have previous boyfriends, guys I was dating, potential friends, potential employers and many others over the years. 

My perceived disinterest turned people off, which in turn seemed to confirm my feelings of being somewhat undesirable. On the other hand, on occasions during which I’ve been more authentic and expressed my feelings more openly, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how receptive most are.

My New Year’s Wish for 2013, then, is simple: do it NOW. Call your grandmother. Kiss your children. Tell your husband what you want from him. Take your mother to see Les Miserables and leave the boys at home. You won’t regret it.

Best wishes to you all in the new year.

Adventure Time

It’s a very rare person whose life is truly uneventful, but it seems that going out of town opens one up to even more adventure than usual, even if just leaving home for a long weekend.

I’m a passenger in my own car, as my husband is driving us to Ashland, Oregon. We’ve been far from our home in the Bay Area all weekend, and yesterday was my father in law’s funeral, in Redmond.

Things began to get interesting when my son, who is 9 and has ADHD, ran out of meds. I am supposed to call three days in advance for a refill (which I did) but occasionally his doctor will be out of town and the refill will take much longer. That was the case last week. C went to school medicated on Tuesday, but unmedicated on Wednesday (he did just fine). By Thursday, I was trying to wrap things up at work for the week, the RX still hadn’t come in, and my husband, off for the summer, informed me that he wouldn’t have time to call Kaiser before we left that night. I prayed silently that C would make it through the 90 minute funeral on Saturday without going insane.

We spent Thursday night and much of Friday traveling. On Friday morning, we stopped for breakfast near Mt Shasta. C began to cry after biting into his pancake, telling us he had a loose tooth. I comforted him and had him keep eating. A few minutes later, the tooth fell out and I stuffed it in my purse for when we arrived at our hotel room later.

We met up with S’ family at his stepmom’s house. S and I have been married 11 years, and I never knew his family was so large – one uncle, two aunts, four cousins, his stepmom’s sister and her husband, his brother, sister in law and their two sons greeted us. All 16 of us had dinner at the Red Rooster, pushing together 3 tables to make it work. C happily played Star Wars Legos with D, my mother in law, and with K, her sister, during dinner.

Yesterday was the funeral. As S is immediate family, we sat in the front pew next to D. I felt all eyes on us, and my pulse began to race as the minister read our names aloud. C began to yawn and laid his head on my shoulder but, aside from getting up to use the bathroom a number of times, barely made a peep.

Several of us gave impromptu eulogies, including me. I thank God I have over a year of Toastmasters training under my belt. My hands shook (a Red Bull on an empty stomach will do that to you), but my voice was clear and unwavering as I told the story of finding my father in law’s name on a plaque on the USS Hornet while S and I were at a swing dancing event there when we were first dating. S and his brother both spoke of their dad as a strong man with enduring opinions and convictions, who challenged them and taught them and who urged them to the very end to embrace Christianity. At the end, D’s sister, K, came over to C to congratulate him on doing so well during the service.

After the ceremony, at D’s house, C found another little boy to play with and was busy pretending to be a cat in the backyard while the adults talked inside. My nephew ran to find us when he noticed him, standing by the slider, just covered in blood and rubbing his nose. The combination of the dry Oregon air and the day’s excitement had gotten to him.

S and I said “No problem!” and set about cleaning him up, to discover that S had forgotten to bring him a change of clothes. As our hotel room was a half hour away, my nephew drove me to Fred Meyer to get him some fresh duds.

Everyone fed and C cleaned up, we took a ton of family photos. Then, S and C and the two nephews and I went to a local state park for a quick hike. I had never seen rock formations like the ones found at Smith Rock except in Utah. Even C, who’s earned a Cub Scout award for video game playing, oohed over the view. Truly majestic – and free, as it happened to be State Park Day.

Today, we’re back on the road, and have already learned a valuable lesson: when in Oregon, don’t speed… particularly if you’re from California. I had no idea we were going that fast, and the ticket? Ouch! As we started back on the road, the radio began to play “Float On” by Modest Mouse:

I backed my car into a cop car the other day,
Well, he just drove off; sometimes life’s OK!

Yeah, whatever. I’m grateful for the opportunity to hit the pause button for a few days and curious what the next adventure will be.


Eyes on the Road

I’ve been thinking about driving quite a bit lately. You see, last week, I paid off my car! About five years ago I had bought a brand-new, 2007 Saturn VUE hybrid. It’s a great car, and gets around 30mpg (not bad for an SUV). As of last Thursday, it’s all mine!

The act of actually making that final loan payment was made much more impressive considering the fact I have not actually done so since 1999. The last time I had paid off a vehicle that I owned, I had almost immediately totaled it. I was driving down a busy street, fantasizing about having a date with my then-boyfriend (now husband) that night, and not really paying attention.

I plowed right into the back of a rusty old El Camino, and the spectacle of my car scrunching into an accordion shape was made all the worse by the heckling I endured from the guys at the bar across the street, who guffawed “Woman driver!!”

When you stop and really think about it, driving is a lot like life. When you get behind the wheel of an automobile, you really need to keep your eyes focused on the road with glances in the rearview mirror every few seconds. The science behind this is solid. You really want to be aware of obstacles not only in front of you, but anything potentially coming up from behind or in your blind spot.

In life, this is true as well. Keep your attention focused of the things that are happening around you, and be present. Yet remain aware of any potential obstacles, and use your previously-gained knowledge (what’s behind you) to help you steer clear of “fender benders”.

Just as you’d never drive with your head turned over your shoulder, you shouldn’t – and can’t – live life clinging to the past.

I think this sums it up quite nicely.

A Depressive Named Laughing Boy

photo by Dude With Camera via PhotoRee

One night about six years ago, I was sitting at the computer (as I am, admittedly, often want to do), when something inside urged me to Google Crowded House, the phenomenal Melbourne, Australia-based band that had split up a decade prior. I don’t know what made me do it, but I entered the search term and clicked on “Groups” so I could read the most current message board and newsgroup discussions.

What I found took my breath away for a minute or so. Just a couple of weeks earlier, their former drummer, Paul Hester, had committed suicide in a Sydney park while out walking his dogs.

I devoured article after article that night, thinking no way is this happening. It can’t be.

Perhaps one reason this bit of news struck me the way that it did is because I have a personal connection to suicide.

I was sleeping in one morning during my first fall semester in college when my mom suddenly burst through my bedroom door and announced, breathlessly, that she had to run to the high school where my brother was a senior. “I have to go,” she told me, “Mike killed himself this morning”.

Mike was a guy both my brother and I had befriended. I would go so far as to say he and A were best friends. Mike was very tall and lanky (with size 15 feet!) and immensely likeable, always with a smile. I had taken a guitar class with him,, and he and A were practically inseperable.

The night before he died, Mike had started a job at a local fast food place and had wrapped up his first shift. He was just a few weeks into his senior year and was looking forward to finishing school, moving into his own place and whatever else lay ahead for him. He had also recently reunited with his girlfriend.

When my mom had said the words “Mike killed himself” I immediately questioned her. “You mean accidentally? Like he wrecked his car?” I could not comprehend him deliberately ending his own life.

I spent the next hour and a half fretting at home about what this all meant. My brother’s best friend was dead and I had no idea why. I was 18 years old and just beginning my adult life and this guy who was a year younger than me had suddenly and without warning finished his life. Nothing about it made sense and I sat in the huge house, alone, my head spinning.

When my mom finally came home, she was in tears. “Oh N… he hung himself”, she cried. And we hugged.

That night, I dreamt about Mike. I was shopping at a local grocery store I’d never set foot in and he was standing in the middle of one of the aisles. He was crying and told me repeatedly how sorry he was. I assured him it was OK and he said he was fine and would continue to be fine. The next morning I felt somehow peaceful about his death and I never again had a dream about him, although I have since visited the grocery store in my dream and it looks more or less the same as it had in the dream.

About two years after I read the news of his death, I also dreamt about Paul Hester. This time I found myself standing on the porch of an expansive mansion on the waterfront in Sydney. When he answered the door, he exclaimed “N! What are you doing here?” and invited me in for a cup of tea, over which he told me he was doing “very well” (afterwards, I learned that, in his life, Paul Hester had owned a tea house). I woke up from that dream with a similar feeling of peace.

I have no idea why all the dreams – I had a nightmare about Kurt Cobain the night after he died – unless my subconscious felt the need to work something out. All these years later, I still don’t know what. I only know that we are all on this planet together, attempting to survive, some finding it much more difficult than others.

It was pointed out to me recently that depression happens when our problems become so large that the entire world is minuscule by comparison. If there is anything in this life worth doing, it should be to help decrease and shrink the problems of others, as much as possible.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Plato

Were you born to resist, or be abused?

Over the last few weeks, anyone not currently without TV, radio, internet access, or otherwise living under a rock has heard about the rash of teen suicides that have been happening due to bullying of LGBT high school and college students. This is horrific, and if anything positive is to come out of all this madness, it will be a greater public understanding of, and resistance to bullying.

I have become interested in learning more about bullying in general over the past couple of weeks; in particular another extremely common form of bullying known as workplace bullying. My reason is purely selfish and personal.

I want to offer information (and, hopefully, help) for those that may be in that very situation.

As I mentioned before, workplace bullying is common: more than 30 percent of American workers have been the target of a bully at work and many more have been witness to bullying. I believe I have been bullied twice before, at an earlier job, and swore to myself I would never end up in the same situation again.

It starts subtly. The bully and the target (the bully’s victim) begin on good terms at the beginning of the working relationship. They are cordial and professional with each other and may even be friendly. Things go well. This period of time is brief; it’s no more than a few weeks before something sets off the bully and he or she begins the process of destroying the target, emotionally and professionally.

If you are the target, you are, more than likely, someone who is competent and well-liked among your coworkers. The bully begins his campaign against you by criticizing your performance, under the guise of helping you improve. You are taken off guard but grateful for the opportunity to develop your skills. So you do what he asks you to do, hopeful that soon, you and your bully will become an awesome team.

The problem is, you never quite seem to improve, at least not enough to please the bully. She begins to find fault with more and more of your work, and to criticize you more and more. Soon, you find that you have been “in trouble” or had a “talking to” every day or nearly every day, and you can’t remember the last time you heard a “thank you” or “good job”. You begin to dread every day that you must drag yourself into the office to face her.

You question yourself. It doesn’t seem to matter at all that you’ve been a valued employee in the past, or that you have a good working relationship with others. You decide that you are a screwup, and you begin to feel that you may be out of a job at any time. You may also decide, particularly if your bully is a supervisor, that you are more easily replaced than he is, and you make the determination that you must change jobs. If you love your job, this is a heart-rending decision to make. During a recession, you may feel trapped in your situation.

As time goes on, you begin to show signs of stress, and may even develop symptoms of PTSD, particularly if your bully is particularly vicious or a yeller, or if you have been abused in the past. You may have trouble falling asleep one night and oversleep the next few days. You may become nauseated when you’re about to walk into the office. As situations become increasingly stressful, you may even begin to experience chest pains.

Your relationships may suffer. Your other obligations may slip. Hell, your job performance itself may slip. You may grow more despondent the longer things go on. You might be incredulous that this is happening to you.

Unfortunately, for a few individuals, the constant anxiety grows into despondency, leading them to ultimately consider and commit suicide. The parallel between school bullying and workplace bullying becomes painfully clear here.

So what is the solution? Bullying is not illegal, unless there is illegal harassment going on as well. Complaining to HR will result in them telling you to “work it out” or talking to the bully, which will just make things worse. Your friends and colleagues will probably not come to your rescue or stand up for you, and if they do, they may very well become targets themselves. And after all is said and done, you may lose your job while your bully keeps his or, in many cases, even earns a promotion!

It’s for this reason that, often, the solution is a job change or transfer for the target or bully. If you love your job and your bully does not seem to be moving towards either of the above, this may place you in quite a quandary.

But all is not lost. The Healthy Workplace Bill has garnered state and national attention since 2003 (more help is needed; if you’re interested in helping a cause they’d love to have you). The UK-based site is full of great information which may help you (also, in the U.S., see The Work Doctor).