Surviving A Family Vacation

I live in a lovely place where huge family groups come to vacation. When I say huge family groups, I don’t just mean a lot of groups. I mean the groups are each huge. Folks rent enormous vacation rental homes, some accommodate 25 people under one roof. They actually choose to spend a week with all of those people, most of whom are relatives.

As you may know from reading this blog or my book, I wouldn’t be likely to need a huge house to accommodate my extended family since most of them don’t actually speak to us. Even before the “falling out,” though, I can’t imagine going on vacation with most of the people I’m related to, unless I was being punished for some super bad behavior. So you can imagine my sheer puzzlement (or shock) at seeing hordes of family members who actually choose to be together for the week.

Since I’m a people watcher I’ve learned a great deal from observing these groups in their unnatural habitat — a big house with 20+ relatives. I also see them on the beach, playing mini golf, at the supermarket, and other places people can truly drive each other crazy. If you have such a trip coming up this summer, take heed in these tips for getting out alive at the end of the week.

1. Don’t go. Unless you want to. People who are forced to go rarely have any fun at all. They are the ones rolling their eyes and complaining constantly. They are stirring up trouble all week. If you are going on this trip to please someone else in the family, I promise you that you won’t be the only one who is miserable. Make an excuse, say you can’t get time off from work but do yourself and everyone else a favor. If you don’t really want to go, please stay home.

2. If you do go, be cognizant of the fact that people on vacation have left their minds at home. Lower your expectations for reasonable behavior. They will make dumb choices, they will do things they would never do at home, they will embarrass you in public. Be prepared to see them in different ways than you see them at home when they’re not on vacation.

3. Go outside. A lot. Spending too much time together can be dangerous and deadly. Take a break. Politely announce, “I’m going for a walk,” or “Meditation Time” and get out of the house for a while. Ten minute breaks could work wonders for your nerves

4. Let some of your rules go. If you believe things have to work a certain way, like dinner must be at 6 and everyone must show up on time and eat after saying Grace for 10 minutes, you are destined to be disappointed. Not everyone functions the way you do. Let it go. Let it be. Let them live the way they want for once. You’re not there to teach them, you’re there to have some freaking fun so do it! Also, on that point, remember this: they don’t necessarily raise kids the way you do or you think they should. Really, really, let that go. Don’t try to show them the right way to raise kids even though we all know you’re better at it.

5. About kids, yours and/or theirs….Don’t punish children on the beach, in the park or in any public place. Don’t yell at them either. The whole world is watching, they have nothing else to do while they’re off from work. So, lighten up on the kids. Definitely do not do what I saw one parent do — call out “Mandatory reading time!” Then she took two perfectly happy kids away from building sandcastles and made them sit up on the beach for 45 minutes reading a book. I’m a former teacher. I think reading is a fantastic way to spend time, but reading on the beach because you are forced to is not a way to instill a love of literature in children.

6. For god’s sake find a good way to make a group decision. Just take one vote and majority rules. I can’t tell you how many people stand in groups in the supermarket trying to decide between cereals. For the love of all things holy, just grab the Corn Flakes and go! It’s cereal, people, it’s not war and peace.

7. Which leads me to the next point. There will be leaders and followers in your group. Someone has to step up and take responsibility for decisions in order to break ties. Let the leader or leaders do their job and be happy to be a follower. Too many leaders is a recipe for disaster but too much democracy leads to anarchy. One or two leaders should be chosen on Day 1 and everyone else should just let them make their magic happen. When things don’t go your way simply find a kindred spirit in the group and roll your eyes gently so he or she will know no one is doing things the way they should be. Have a buddy system so you can telegraph your disappointment to each other without actually yelling at anyone.

8. Which leads again to the next point. Develop a “Who cares?” attitude for the week. Didn’t get the restaurant or meal you wanted? Who cares? No one else wants to see the movie of your choice? Who cares? Are you going to let that ruin your vacation? Don’t be too set in your ways and desires. Remember, this is your time away from aggravation so just refuse to let it seep into your fun times. Appreciate the sights around you or the natural beauty of where you are. Nothing else should matter.

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9. Remember who these people are. If Uncle Harry annoys you at home, the likelihood is he will be astronomically obnoxious on vacation. If you are imagining you’ll like him better in larger doses, you’re insane. You’ll like him a lot less, so just know that going in and try to steer clear as much as possible.

10. Keep in mind, these are the people who help shape you. They love you and you love them. (some of them at least) And, if all else fails, keep in mind it’s only a week. Next week you’ll be back at work, safe and sound.

Writers and Parents: Be Careful What You Wish For!

Writing is a great many wonderful things but making a living at it isn’t easy. And, more importantly, it may not be a good thing. Consider this story. I wrote a parenting book some years back, before the advent of self publishing. Shockingly, at least to me, it was published by a major publishing house and even more shocking, they actually spent about 10 minutes promoting it. (Because promoting books is not one of the things big publishing houses do well or even at all for most books! Yes, that was a surprise to me too.) One afternoon I returned to my home office to hear this voice mail:

Woman’s voice: Hi. This is Andrea. I’m a producer  at the Oprah Show. We just received your parenting book and we think it’s terrific. We’re doing a show on being organized and we already have an expert booked on the show but if you could be in Chicago next week, we might be able to add a segment specific to parenting. If you’re interested, please call me at …

OMG. I won’t even bother trying to describe how I felt.  I know you can easily imagine. (Suffice it to say the moment was so thrilling, I can still remember what I was wearing when I heard the message.) So, of course I returned the call ASAP. First she waxed poetic about my book and explained the reason they loved it was because it was so practical. Every suggestion in the book was something any parent could do with any child. She loved the way I looked at parenting which was that parents should integrate kids into their lives while maintaining as much of themselves and their previous lives as possible. I was thrilled they understood the point of the book which was to give parents actual, doable advice for raising responsible, good kids without overwhelming parents with a lot of theories and philosophizing. She asked if I could send video of me on any prior appearance on TV as well as a brief description of what I thought would be a good two-minute segment. She explained it was not highly likely they’d be able to add me in since the show was really already tightly planned but she really liked the book and was going to try. I sent off my package and held my breath.

Next I phoned my agent, who, while she was thrilled for me, had a cautionary warning. What I said to her, somewhat jokingly but also maybe a little bit wistfully was, “Maybe I’ll be the John Gray of parenting.” Back then he was the IT writer, who had written the phenomenally successful relationship book about men being from Mars while women were from Venus. She answered quickly, “You don’t want to be that. He’s a relationship expert who’s on the road about 50 weeks a year. Do you want to be writing about parenting while being away from your kids 50 weeks out of the year?”

That struck me and proved to be a little comforting when I heard back from the producer who reported, alas, they could not fit my two-minute segment into the show, as she had feared. But, she said they loved my book and would try to find another show to work it into. Despite the fact I spent the next year sending her show theme pitches and small gifts in Fed Ex envelopes monthly (my agent’s suggestion), my Oprah appearance remained elusive. I was so disappointed. My dream of being a fantastically successful writer did not come to pass.

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Lego Art by Nathan Sawaya

Thus, I did not become the John Gray of parenting. But I did raise three amazing daughters who probably lamented how much I was around the house more than I did! I have no regrets. My book sold okay, I did some other  fun TV and radio appearances with it and got some very positive feedback. Thanks to the ability to self publish and the fact that the rights reverted back to me, I updated it and published it again this year so if you want to check out Raising Amazing Children: While Having a Life of Your Own, the practical parenting book an Oprah producer loved but didn’t produce a show about, it’s just 99 cents on Amazon. I figure if it’s a bestseller now, I can hit the road. My kids are all grown and won’t even notice if I leave town!  If you give it as a gift to a new parent you know, you can tell them it was almost on Oprah. (They don’t have to know you only spent a dollar on it!) If you read it, please share a review on Amazon. Your opinion will mean more to me than any producer’s! And, writers, rethink your disappointments. Maybe the way it’s working out for you is the way it’s meant to be after all.

Who Taught You To Be Generous?

Love the conversation I overheard in the gym locker room this morning. Okay, I admit it freely; I am an eavesdropper of the highest magnitude. On a scale of 1-10 guilty of listening in to what total strangers are saying, I’m a 12. But it’s a wonderful vice to have. I find people so fascinating and sometimes uplifting too.

Two women, both in their 40s or so. Truthfully I can never tell, they may have been anywhere from 40 – 65. But they did both look terrifically fit, whatever their age. (I’m not that big a snoop, I didn’t secretly photograph them so you’ll have to take my word.) Here’s how the conversation went:

Woman A: I’ve always had the habit of making extra food when I make something like Tiramisu or lasagne,  you know the things it’s just as easy to make double of as it is to make one. I give the other one to someone else. But my husband always asked, “Why are you giving our food away?” He was annoyed about it and didn’t understand why I didn’t just freeze it and keep it for us. So I told him it was no big deal to make extra and other people need it more than we do. We’re not rich but we can certainly afford to give away a lasagne every so often.

Woman Z: That is really nice of you. How do you decide who to give the food to?

Woman A: Well, I just kind of pick anyone I’ve talked to recently who I think could use the help. Like you know that guy in the gym who just lost his wife? He’s alone and I don’t think he cooks so I gave him a meal last week. And, that’s when it got interesting. When I got home and told my husband who I gave the food to, he said, “Oh, now I get it. I understand why you’re giving away food. That guy probably won’t have a home cooked meal now that his wife is gone. He probably doesn’t cook. That’s really nice of you.” So, when it was someone my husband could clearly relate to, because he knows he’d be lost without my cooking, he finally understood the whole idea of helping people who need a hand. I was really happy he got it and won’t be pissed at me for giving away our food.

Woman Z: So, that’s cool, you taught your husband how to be generous. Who taught you that?

Woman A: (Period of total silence)

Woman Z: I mean you weren’t born that way, someone had to teach you about generosity. Who was it?

Woman A: Wow, I never thought about that. I’ve always just seen myself as a good and generous person. Let me think about it.

Woman Z: Your mom?

Woman A: No, I don’t think so. Wait, you know what? It was probably my dad. He is and has always been dirt poor. He lives in Puerto Rico and has never made any money but he’s always seen a beautiful world around himself. He never thought of himself as poor. When I was a teenager I’d take odd jobs to make some money and I’d give some of it to him. He’d give it away and I’d get really angry. I’d say, “I worked to make that money for you, not for that guy. Why’d you give my money away?” And he’d say, “I’m okay. I have everything I need but that guy needs help.” And, believe me, my father had nothing, but somehow he always thought others were worse off and wanted to help them because for whatever reason, he saw a beautiful life surrounding him and felt sorry for other people.I guess it was my dad.

And she smiled. And the woman who asked the great question smiled. And I smiled but I had to turn away so they wouldn’t know I was eavesdropping. But I was glad I did. Maybe I should have saved this post for Father’s Day and maybe some folks will reblog it then but I just couldn’t wait. What a tribute to what makes a great dad!

So I ask you that wonderful question. Are you generous? What does that mean to you and who taught you to be that way? If you could teach that to someone whom would you choose?

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Family Holiday Survival Tips You Need Now

Holidays can be hell when you’re a member of a dysfunctional family unit. I know this for a fact as holidays have been challenging for us for most of the last 20 years. But, I didn’t want to dread the holidays so I’ve developed some strategies for surviving the event where you may be surrounded by people you can just barely tolerate. Here are my half-dozen  survival tips for dealing with the holiday happenings.

1. Invite some people you love. Balance the scales in favor of more people you enjoy than people who drive you up a wall. For many years we’ve opened our family celebrations to our friends when they were available. That way you can, throughout the meal, turn to your friends, roll your eyes and silently thank whomever you believe in for sending some friends your way. This works for a while. In recent years some people politely said if my in-laws were going to attend my holiday dinner, they’d prefer not to. So, you have to rotate the friends you invite in order to have new people who are up for the challenge joy of being with your extended family.

2. Learn to look the other way. When my in-laws would start fighting at the table, my strategy was to turn toward my kids, whom I adored and focus just on them. It’s like meditating where you control your mind but with the control being on your focus. Of course it helps if inside your head you keep repeating this mantra: At least I’m not as crazy as they are, at least I’m not as crazy as they are…

3. See recent movies. This is a good one. When the conversation takes a turn you know is going to go swiftly downhill and end up in  an unpleasant valley, you bring up a movie you’ve seen and be ready to launch into a five-minute distraction/dissertation about the plot, the characters, why you loved or hated it, whatever you can think of to completely derail their plan to foil your fun with misery.

4. Speak loudly. When the relatives are heading into tough territory if you can overspeak them in volume and take the talk somewhere better, to something less volatile than their personal grievances, like say politics or religion, you will be happy with the result.

5. Some holidays call for wine as part of the celebration. If yours doesn’t, you may want to consider adding that.

6. Know that the sun will set on this day and tomorrow your life will be much brighter for having done so well in coping with holiday “joy.”

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Could You Attend A Functional Family Convention? If you do these 10 things…

We become part of a family and although it’s a complex machine, we receive no instructions on how to make it work well. Much like becoming a parent, you do it and you fly from the seat of your pants. There’s no instruction manual, no how-to guide, no user guide, not even a quick-start info graphic. No wonder so many families go painfully awry!

So I thought I’d remedy that today. Here are 10 things people who appreciate family do.

1. Love unconditionally. This one seems obvious but you’d be surprised how many people don’t understand how important unconditional love is. Love doesn’t just happen, it takes work. Unconditional love means loving someone regardless of what they’re like or what they do for you. It’s loving for the sake of loving, no more, and no less. Unconditional love is a gift for the giver and the recipient. It starts with loving yourself unconditionally and grows from there.

2. Seek understanding. Notice that says, “Seek understanding” not “be understanding.” My point here is  it’s up to each person to reach out to family members to try to be understood by sharing what matters to them. Great family members want others to know them well.

3. Be understanding. Here’s the other side of the understanding coin. Understanding is definitely a two-way street. Family members who wish to be understood are often the ones who understand others well. The give and take of understanding is the foundation of any great relationship. It’s particularly acute in families where if you can’t understand each other, it’s harder to just walk away.

4. Stand and fight. Yes, sometimes conflict happens and it probably should. Chances are if you never disagree on anything in a family it’s because you’re not doing much together. Family members who interact a great deal are likely to disagree from time to time. It’s okay. Those who stand and fight can also resolve problems. Those resolutions lead to stronger bonds. So great family members don’t have to shy away from problems, they can fight and win stronger ties.

5. Forgive. Following the fighting with forgiveness is a hallmark of a healthy functioning family. Forgiveness isn’t magic. It doesn’t just happen. It’s a conscious letting-go of any resentment. A conscious letting-go. Family members who want to move on after a conflict make a choice to move forward to peace of mind. Those family members help to set others free from the pain of the conflict. This one is huge.

6. Give. People who understand the value of giving in a relationship don’t hesitate to do so. They may give time, they may give money, they may share possessions, they may give a sympathetic ear, they give what they can when they can. Giving is a way of exhibiting caring. It’s a manifestation of how a person feels.

7. Take. The other side of this coin. Giving is great but, surprisingly, taking reasonably is also terrific. (In other words, there’s a difference between taking and taking advantage which is not good.) Being able to accept, whether it’s time or help or money or advice is important. It may show vulnerability and that is a good thing of sorts. Being vulnerable means to be open to hurt. Why is that good? When people are vulnerable they are exposed because their defenses are down. In a family the walls that protect us should not have to exist.  Great family members should be comfortable with being somewhat vulnerable and open to emotion.

8. Stay honest in the big moments. Honesty is fluid and that’s okay. If your sister gets an awful haircut a loving family member can choose to assure her it looks okay and that’s fine. But a loving family member doesn’t tell lies to manipulate others.

9. Eschew secrets. There’s a fine line between being trustworthy with private matters and keeping secrets that shouldn’t be kept. Loving family members don’t recruit others to keep secrets that might later come out and hurt people.

10. Be accountable, reliable, responsible and dependable. Loving family members mean what they say, do what they promised and show up.

So, how does your family stack up? If you have family members who do all of these things, consider sending this post with a thank you note to brighten their day. And if you think you could do a bit better, consider sharing this post with a note of promise to work harder so your family functions better than ever. Is there anything you’d add to this list?

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