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Summer Reading

IMG_6125This summer I’ve been reading physical books, after ten years of NOT reading many physical books. In completely original news, I blame Netflix, smartphones and Kindle for this lapse.

But then I joined a book club populated with really smart people who totally read the books we’re assigned. Since joining, we’ve tackled some fascinating titles like Hillbilly Elegy, Gentlemen of Moscow and We Were Eight Years in Power. It’s easier to bring a physical edition to meetings and bookmark pages with post-it notes so I can share my thoughts. So, the book club has done a great job rekindling my passion for that lovely dusty scent of pages turned, but also, a horrible turbulent airplane ride triggered Mal de Debarquement. Screens were really tricky for a couple of weeks; reading an actual book, however, calmed the vertigo down. So I went on a bit of a tear.

Here’s what I’ve recently read:

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

I love pairing travel with a book that can increase my connection with my destination. I read All the Light We Cannot See in Paris a few years ago. The city and particularly the Louvre took on a different sheen during my visit, and reading about Paris in the 1940s made the streets look different, and frankly, a little foreboding.  We went to Italy this summer, and while there I read Walter’s lovely, funny and wise book about an Italian innkeeper, a beautiful American actress who is dying, the filming of Cleopatra in Rome and modern-day Hollywood. Sounds disparate and odd, but the author creates a wistful tone that keeps you turning the pages. Bonus: the overriding philosophy of the book is both romantic AND stoic at the same time, which fits my own framework. AND the cover is gorgeous.

Gretchen Rubin Marathon (The Happiness Project, Better Than Before, The Four Tendencies)

The New Yorker once referred to Rubin’s books as the closest real world example of this hilarious cartoon.  I can relate. I don’t find daily living very easy. Routines are not my strength. I waffle making decisions about simple things. which can lead to procrastination. I prefer fresh adventures, big moments, new sensory experiences and unique journeys to day-to-day life. Rubin has described her ideal existence as being a monk with the same unchanging daily routine, which pretty much makes her my polar opposite. What she’s figured out is that we all fit into four different “tendencies”: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger and Rebel.  These tendencies inform how we keep habits, which is a key to happiness. Habits include regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, meeting work goals and being organized. The Upholders seem to hold all the cards in today’s productivity crazed world. They meet both outside and inside expectations, and are able to generate the unlimited energy and mental resources to complete all their goals and keep all their habits. I am a Questioner, which explains my annoying dithering about decisions and endless quest for research. My twins are both Upholders, and understanding this about them has helped me actually be a better parent.

Still, what I mostly take from her writing? Modern life is easier for an Upholder.

Station 11, Emily St John Mandel

The best book I’ve read in years is this dystopian novel set (mostly) years after a horrible flu wipes most of humanity off the planet. This probably sounds unbearably grim, but there is so much beauty and hope in the writing that it practically drips off of the page. Much of the plot features a traveling troupe of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare and Beethoven to the few exhausted survivors eeking out a pre-industrial revolution existence, and their poignant motto is “Survival is Insufficient.” Sound too wacky, genre or sad? Would it help if I told you it was a finalist for the National Book Award? This was in 2014, which, considering All the Light We Cannot See was ALSO a finalist and neither book actually won? 2014 must have been a particularly awesome year for fiction.

Into the Woods and The Likeness, Tana French

I like mysteries, and I’d heard French was known for her modern, literary fiction take on the genre. I really enjoyed Into the Woods, which was spooky, atmospheric and included one particular passage that still gives me the chills to even think about (it’s set in the titular woods). I must warn you that this book includes a child murder victim, which I normally can’t deal with, but the book avoided sensationalism. BUT, I couldn’t finish The Likeness. I could not suspend the disbelief needed to make the premise work. I appreciated the character development, writing, and liked the idea of a clique of really smart, sensitive academics devoted to each other living in a beautiful old home. But there’s just something about the idea of a doppelgänger that I can’t personally accept. Someone who looks exactly like a detective is murdered? And they have no moles or tattoos or freckles to distinguish them? And the detective goes and lives with the clique who knew her intimately to see why she was murdered? I just couldn’t buy it. Maybe it’s my annoying Questioner personality at work again. Supposedly The Likeness was inspired by The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, which I have never read. Maybe I should? I feel like I should read The Goldfinch first. Advice welcome.  Regardless, I will read French again, because I love the Dublin Murder Squad characters.

Less, Andrew Sean Greer

One of the women in my book club recommended this as our “light read” because the list in 2018 was pretty serious stuff. Then the month we read the book, Less won the Pulitzer, ha! I loved this hilarious, poignant and unabashedly sweet novel. The main character is an author named Arthur Less who decides to travel around the world to mark his 50th birthday–and escape an ex’s wedding–by using as many random free invitations and third rate literary fellowships as he can. For example, in New York City, he takes the assignment of interviewing an unexpectedly ill, lowbrow yet very famous science fiction author named H. H. H. Mandern in front of hundreds of his fans.

“Arthur Less?” the white-haired woman asks in the green room of the theater, while H. H. H Mandern vomits into a bucket. “Who the hell is Arthur Less?”

This book travels vicariously with the hapless Arthur as he bumbles through the value added tax system, various misadventures in Morocco and India but also some well-earned triumphs. Less is winning and likable, and I loved the character’s optimism and sheer doggedness in spite of literary snobs and his own low esteem. And the VAT bureaucracy.

What have you read this summer? Any thoughts on these books? Any recommendations of books you’ve read and loved? 

 

 

 

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8 Things I Learned by Tracking My Time For One Month

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As a longtime tech professional in Silicon Valley, I have come to appreciate the value of good data. I have mined thousands of data points for insights, creating various reports for work. I also love apps like MyFitnessPal that help me track and monitor the amount of calories I consume. I especially like Orange Theory Fitness for its detailed monitoring and reports on calories burned and time spent in various heart rate categories.

So when I heard about people tracking their time, I was game to give it a try and determine how wisely I spend my hours. While Instagram can tell you how you spend your time in that app, there is no shortcut to tracking all your time other than to keep a detailed spreadsheet and be as diligent and honest as possible about entering your hours. I began with a head start, because I already track my hours for work, and I have a format I prefer. I decided to categorize my hours very carefully to make sure I could analyze my tasks, breaking out work clearly from other activities. For example, I categorized all tasks with columns like laundry, cooking, cleaning, driving, reading, watching TV and spending time on my phone — and carefully noted how much time I spent on these activities each day. Mining data professionally has taught me that you need crisp and clear categorizations, and writing a list describing how I spent each 15 minute increment in my day would not provide me with the best insights.

The downside? Tracking your time is VERY tedious, and I would not want to do it every month. However, I think I gained enough useful information to make the exercise worthwhile. And, I have made some changes based on my learnings. Here are my key takeaways:

1. I drive more than I thought I did

My kids go to a school that is not within walking distance. They also have after school activities I drive them to. But because these activities are relatively close to each other and our home (with the exception of my daughter’s ballet), I didn’t really notice that 15 minute drives multiple times a day add up. On average, I drove about one hour each day of May. During drive time, I often listened to podcasts and had conversations with the kids. But primarily I drove. I realized that it is important to factor driving into my daily routine.

2. I spend too much time on my phone

It begins innocently enough. I’m winding down in the evening. I check my work email, then my texts. Then I check social media, then I see an article that interests me, and BAM. Thirty minutes later, I am still on my phone, rooting for raccoons climbing skyscrapers. This is not time I meant to spend, and it’s not what I would deem “quality time.” I spent almost one and a half hours on this nonsense every day in May, and I want my daily phone time to be less moving forward.

3. There’s a difference between watching TV with someone, and watching it alone

Part of my “winding down” at night routine is watching Netflix by myself. I don’t think my current obsession of re-watching every episode of “Parks and Recreation” is a great use of my time. But, TV I watch with others feels like time well spent. The problem is it’s harder to agree on something to watch together; there is so much quality TV that serves so many different niches. There literally is some kind of TV programming for everyone, so decision fatigue can set in when you try to choose something everyone wants to watch. Be that as it may, watching “Downton Abbey” with my daughter or “Babylon Berlin” with my husband created a sense of closeness and fun. Which is probably better than watching Ron Swanson drive off in a huff with a grill tied to his car, yet again. Probably.  This month I am trying to watch more TV with others than by myself.

4. I sleep an average of 8.25 hours a night – and that’s OK

A while back, I got a chance to ask Arianna Huffington (author of The Sleep Revolution among many other things) how parents should cope when they are up at night with a sick kid, then have to work the next day. This was not a hypothetical question–I had spent the night before struggling with an ill child. She stated her research showed something like 90% of the world’s population needs between 7-8 hours of sleep. Ever since then, I have not felt like a loser for needing my sleep at night. I generally go to bed pretty early (9:30 PM) and I don’t feel badly about it anymore.

5. I am most productive in the morning

I wake up early, and it turns out I produce my best work during the morning hours. For whatever reason, I am able to think critically, decipher and write about complicated concepts and generally push through the most difficult tasks before the noon hour. There were several instances in May when I stared at my screen for an hour during the afternoons, struggling to write even a few sentences. I am also at my best for meetings and calls in the morning. Knowing that I am a morning worker helps me plan my day accordingly. Working from home also helps me to be more flexible; I roll out of bed at 5:30 AM, work until I make the kids breakfast then complete most of my work before my brain starts to tire (at about 2 PM).

6. The time I spent with friends stands out

In May, my college friends and I met up for our annual girls weekend. The time I spent with my friends during that full weekend of activities is what I remember most during the month of May. There was so much rich conversation, community and bonding. I am so grateful I can spend time with friends I have that kind of history with.

7. I didn’t spend enough quality time with my husband

I only spent 38 minutes a day with just my husband. While we spent lots of time as a family together, the two of us didn’t have much alone time, and that’s not what I want. This month I’ve made sure we have regular date nights. I’m also trying to spend about an hour watching TV with him before I head off to bed.

8.  I “cook” more than I thought

The word cook deserves to be in air quotes, as I typically prepare things like scrambled eggs, baked potatoes, salads, steamed vegetables, pasta, and other types of low-maintenance foods (while my husband grills seafood and meats). I also heat up various Trader Joes products. So, we’re not talking Julia Child level cuisine. Still, what I do takes more time than I thought, as I spent roughly 1.3 hours cooking a day. I don’t know that there are any time saving lessons to learn here, but what I noticed is we don’t go out to eat pretty much ever as a family, and we eat most dinners together. I think our dinners would be more special if I was trying out new recipes more frequently, so I should work on that.

I listen to the “Best of Both Worlds” podcast, and one of the hosts (Laura Vanderkam, whose blog I linked to above) published a new book on the subject of time management which looks intriguing. One more small lesson I learned from tracking my time is I don’t read enough. If I could substitute my phone time for reading time, that would be ideal.

Have you ever tracked your time? Why or why not? Do you think you would be surprised by what you found? Do you also watch too many reruns on Netflix? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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9 Ways to Prepare Your Children to Travel Separately

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It all started because my mother-in-law never had a daughter.

When MIL learned I was having a girl, she stated that she was going to take her granddaughter to Paris when she turned ten. Paris has a storied past for my husband’s family–they have visited frequently, and even lived there for a short time. My husband was conceived there, and he proposed marriage to me on the Pont Neuf. We celebrated our betrothal with his family, who had traveled to Paris with the engagement ring.

As my daughter’s tenth year approached, we dithered about what to do with her twin brother. We thought about taking him somewhere, but one of our commandments of twins parenting is “Parity, as Much as Possible.” Since his sister was having an adventure, we wanted our son to have one too, preferably with my relatives who have their own haunts and places. We approached my family, and decided that we would send him to Portland, Oregon where my brother and his wife live.

Meanwhile, my husband and I decided we would embark on our own trip, just the two of us. Neither of us had visited South America, and both of us had harbored childhood dreams of touring the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Paris, Portland & Peru.

Thus began lots of intricate planning to launch three separate journeys on three separate continents during one spring break. I learned a ton along the way, and wanted to share our mistakes, victories, and lessons learned.

1. Check All Necessary Travel Documentation Months in Advance

This may seem obvious, but it is essential. If your child is traveling internationally, passports must be up to date, and that is a whole process which takes a few months to complete, at minimum. My daughter’s passport had expired, so we had to renew it. We began the process in December, and received her new passport in March, about a month before she traveled. Some countries in Europe require passports to be valid six months after you arrive, so check the expiration dates. We also renewed my son’s passport at the same time, because he would require a photo ID to travel on his plane rides.

2. Provide Your Child With a Device That Can Make Calls

We decided to buy iPods for the children, and set up the Skype app for both (so our daughter in particular could make international calls). We don’t want them to have smartphones yet, but we wanted to make sure in an emergency, they would be able to call us. Neither of them ever did, but both texted us quite a bit. Bonus: both children took lots of photos, and sent them to us, which was a good way to see how their trips were going in real-time. We had parental controls on the devices, so they were limited in what they could do.

3. Start the Packing Process Early

I really hate packing, and packing for three different trips seemed daunting. What helped was making lists early (two months prior) for each person. I needed to buy toiletries for both kids (shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, etc) and both were going to be in different climates. Both also needed better rain gear than what we had. We ended up going to REI, as my husband and I also needed to purchase rain gear, as we were going to be in a rainy climate as well. I had the kids very involved in what they wanted to bring, and they were active packers, although I did the final checks. Our own packing was the hardest: we were traversing a number of climates and altitudes in one short trip, and there were many flights so we didn’t want to check our bags. I ended up buying a new carry-on suitcase which fit the standard measurements for international airlines, but had the most room possible, and packed everything in it. This guide to what to pack for Peru was helpful–practical, with some cute ideas of what to wear in Lima.

4. To Do Lists Up the Wazoo

Keeping track of packing, travel rules, documentation, who needed what when: to-do lists were the key to making sure everything got done. I had one master to-do list, which informed the packing list, and my daily to-do lists I created. I had dates for each item on the master list to keep me on-track.

5. Take Advantage of Credit Cards with Points

Not really related to our kids’ travel this time, but an excellent hack nevertheless. We both use Amex cards connected to Starwood, and try to pay for big purchases on them (we even bought a car with our card!). The key is to pay off the cards monthly, so you are not paying fees. My husband also has an airline Visa card. We cashed in our Starwood points, and did not pay for a single hotel in Peru. We didn’t have enough points to pay for our flights, but we did use points to upgrade to Economy Plus, which was nice.

6. Read about the Travel Destinations Together Before They Go 

We got books at the library to get the kids excited about where they were going, and tailored travel activities to suit their interests. My son, after reading about the Shanghai tunnels in Portland, decided he wanted to do a tour. He loves basketball, so we got him tickets to go to the Trail Blazers game with his uncle. My daughter loves ballet, the impressionists and fashion, so MIL booked a ballet performance, a tour of Monet’s gardens and a fashion show.

7. Provide Extensive Documentation to Caregivers

My MIL is an active caregiver here at home, and knows my daughter’s eating habits well. But my son is a notoriously picky eater who also is in a phase where he is having trouble gaining weight. He needs a ton of calories each day, and only eats a handful of items so that’s a challenge. I provided my family with a detailed list of all the foods he ate for breakfast, lunch, heavy snack and dinner. I also detailed his bedtime routine, and how he needed to brush his teeth because of his various orthodontia gear.

8. Be Prepare for the Unexpected to Happen

All our planning and to-do lists didn’t help when my mom broke her ankle, and it wasn’t healed in time to travel with my son. I had to move to Plan B: Unaccompanied Minor. Unaccompanied Minor meant my son was to travel alone on the plane, and there was a lot of documentation and coordination to pull that off. Luckily FIL was able to fill in and pick him up from the airport, as we flew in the next day. It also meant I had to drive him to the airport, be there 90 minutes early, watch the plane take off before leaving (and of course his plane was delayed). I hadn’t planned for that much time to be occupied when I was wrapping up my work for the week, and so had to work quite a bit the night before we left. Plus there was more mayhem…

9. Chill the Heck Out

I was a stress case the few days before we all left, because my daughter’s airline decided to go on strike, and it was unclear whether she would be able to go to Paris after all. I needlessly stressed about all the logistics that were already set, while also tying up all my many loose ends at work. I’ve been better about managing stress in general, but not during this time, and suffered two sleepless nights. I also hate flying, so was on edge about that.

I should have remembered my stoicism, and stayed in the moment. Most of what I was worried about was out of my control, and I should have only been laser focused on what I could control. Don’t do this!

The end result was two kids who came back more confident than before. Something about traveling without us challenged them, and created a sense of independence. They both felt like VIPs as well, showered with family attention which was nice for twins, who often struggle to get one-on-one time with us.

Bonus: my husband and I had a great time. He is my favorite person to hang out with, and we got in some fun quality time. Machu Picchu is one of the few places I’ve been that lives up to the hype, it truly is an awe-inspiring sight. Peruvian food is really delicious and we had a once-in-a-lifetime meal at Astrid & Gaston. Finally, baby alpacas are officially the cutest animals I’ve ever seen.

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Have you sent your kids to travel without you? Why or why not?

 

 

 

 

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Weekends: Scheduling Vs. Unscheduling?

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Grumpy Rumblings prompted me to write about whether I prefer to schedule my time for the weekends as opposed to not scheduling. Over the years, we’ve definitely tried both approaches, but finally have come to the conclusion that we prefer to a more scheduled weekend.

I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot since the beginning of the year, and have spent time evaluating how we want to spend our weekends. I’ve tried to determine:

  • What each member of the family both needs and wants to do during a weekend
  • What we need and want to do during a weekend as a family
  • What my husband and I need to do together

NEEDS:

  • My son needs to go his 2.5 hour coding class
  • My daughter needs some alone time, and time to write
  • We need to get groceries, and complete necessary household chores
  • My husband is on a tennis team, with scheduled matches on a weekend
  • My son, who is the proud owner of one of the fastest metabolisms known to man yet is also maybe one of the pickiest eaters ever, needs to eat 3-4 LARGE meals a day, with lots of protein as he has to gain weight (this, in addition to two weight gaining shakes a day)
  • My husband and I need date nights once a week–this includes nights out with couple friends, concerts, dinner parties, plays, movies, etc. Yes, I did say “need.” YMMV.
  • I need to work out both days, preferably Orange Theory Fitness classes which includes both HIIT and strength training. Again, with the need. I definitely need to work out.

WANTS:

  • We host at least one joint family dinner on a Friday night with one of the twins’ school friends and their families, once a month. This has been a lot of fun, and we’ve enjoyed getting to know families better.
  • Playdates with friends for both kids
  • I like to cook and bake. This weekend I’m going to make this lemon rosemary cake that was inspired by my mom’s poem “Lemon Bread”!
  • We usually like to complete one household project a weekend, like organizing our linen closet, decluttering a bedroom, or cleaning out a bathroom cabinet for example.
  • My husband likes to watch TV or read in a quiet area by himself for a few hours
  • I like to do something that is relaxing by myself, like a massage (we have a bunch of free points at our gym that allow us to get these for free every once in a while!), a pedicure, or even a nap.

Obviously, it can be difficult to meet every single one of these wants and needs. But we can fit more into a weekend, if we plan. Also–it’s more budget friendly to book ahead. For date nights, we plan ahead as much as we can, scheduling activities with friends, booking events, restaurants, and most importantly babysitters often months ahead of time. Same with the family dinners, as you have to work with the calendars of two other adults, and multiple children, which is complicated.

That’s not to say that spontaneity doesn’t play a role in our weekends. As you’ll see from our message board, last Sunday looked wide open–but not mentioned was grocery shopping, household chores and Orange Theory Fitness in the morning. However, our afternoon was relatively free, so when a friend invited us to a family event we were able to fit it in. This long weekend, we will be fitting in a “Black Panther” showing–although showtimes are booking up fast! We probably will need to buy tickets tonight. So much for “on the fly”–ha.

There is room for improvement. We should host more playdates than we do, as the kids’ are invited to playdates more than we host them. One of the household projects we will tackle soon is revamping the big kids’ “rec room” downstairs, with an easy-to-use TV, computer for gaming and better organization for the legos, robotics equipment, EV3, etc. I also want to get a ping pong table, as all of us enjoy playing ping pong. I think it would be fun for friends to play during playdates, although we have a great basketball court area that no one ever uses, so maybe not? These are indoor kids.

What do you prefer–scheduled or unscheduled weekends? Would love to hear about your schedules and tips.

 

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What I am Loving Right Now

Kitchen cornerIt’s more than midway through January, and while I am enjoying reading about New Year’s resolutions I won’t be publishing my own. Instead, I’ve been thinking about things that have made my life much better in the last year. I would love to share them with you, and in turn I would love to hear from you. What items made your life better in the last year?

  1. Orange Theory Fitness. I LOVE these exercise classes, and I’m not an exercise class person. The biggest pluses are a wonderful crew of fellow workout partners, really nice staff and teachers, and a great app that makes it easy to book classes. While I have worked out regularly for a while now, since taking Orange Theory classes my energy has skyrocketed and the endorphins flow all day after a class. Plus — I have so much fun lifting weights (I feel like Gal Gadot), and hitting my tech-y targets using my heart monitor. I feel so strong these days. HIGHLY recommended.
  2. Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. I have added a number of this book’s recipes to my core cooking rotation. Every single recipe in here that I have tried turns out delicious. I cannot say the same for most other cookbooks I use! My favorites: Spaghetti Bolognese, Butternut Squash Soup, Shirred Eggs, Gingered Applesauce Cake Glazed with Caramel Sauce, and Banana Bread.
  3.  Gusto. I started my own business last year, and Gusto makes payroll incredibly simple. If you are a business owner, I recommend checking them out.
  4. Show Your Work Podcast: I love LaineyGossip, who is known in Canada as one of the hosts of The Social. Her podcast talks about lessons from Hollywood that can be applied to our work lives. Sounds weird, but it’s totally fascinating. And sometimes useful.
  5. Best of Both Worlds Podcast. A friend recommended this podcast, which focuses on how to best balance work and parenting. Surprisingly A-list guests, like Gretchen Rubin (!), talk about productivity and give useful tips on how to get the most out of your life.
  6. Hold Me Tight: The only book about marriage I’ve ever read that is actually useful. From Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the developers of EFT, this method of improving marriages is unique, academic study-based and helps resolve conflict without focusing on the usual compromises. Instead, EFT focuses on emotional bonds. Truly, a game changer.
  7. High-end workout clothes: Yes, I have fallen prey to the Lululemon cult. Their clothes look and feel SOOOO much better than anything else I’ve tried. I was previously a fan of Target’s running tights, but the tights I bought from Lululemon are so much more flattering, comfortable and durable. Worth the money.
  8. Setting up a Household Folder on Google docs. This is suuuuuuppppper geeky, but I love having a shared folder that tracks what needs to be repaired/fixed, Amazon orders, meal plans, social schedule, Trader Joe’s grocery lists, camp schedules, etc. Totally keeps us accountable and ON IT.
  9. Mint: This app is heaven for the financial geek in me. I look at it all the time.

What do you love? Would love to hear your tips, hacks, and recommendations of things that have made your life better.  

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