Sunday, May 22, 2016

Nostalgizing in Lake Havasu

Motu swimming in the channel
during younger days
This week my husband and I spent in Havasu packing up and cleaning out our condo that we sold. We spent the week ensuring all the appropriate documents were signed, arranging for furniture and housewares to be hauled away to a consignment shop, and enjoying the opportunity to take in some hiking and relaxing before leaving Lake Havasu for good. We have owned our Lake Havasu condo for ten years and have been trying to sell it for the last four years simply because we didn't use it frequently and wanted to try another option for an income property. We talked about why we didn't spend more time there and the reasons we came up with were:

  • a long drive five hours from our home
  • scheduling (the condo was sometimes rented when we wanted to visit)
  • work (we like to visit mid-week which requires using vacation days).
We have all gotten older and in the ten years we have been visiting the condo things have changed a lot. We used to order lamb and double cut pork chops from the restaurant we visited, but six years ago due to gallstones I overhauled my diet and eliminated dairy and nearly all meat. Now we order fish grilled plain and without the cream sauce and ahi salads with dressing on the side. Our dog is too old to chase the ball that we used to throw into the river with a "chuck it" and must take the elevator instead of the stairs when I take her out to go to the bathroom. She sleeps most of the day. We went the entire week without television or renting DVDs and instead watched Crackle or Netflix streamed onto our laptops. We spent a couple mornings hiking in the desert enjoying nature instead of lifting weights or running on treadmills at the gym.

And though it was a relief once the sale closed and the condo was cleaned and empty, I found myself being nostalgic about the times we spent there and the rituals we developed. The smallest covered bowls that I packed away reminded me of all the guacamole I had made over the years and packed into a cooler to take out on the boat we rented. We ate dinner at the same restaurant our first night at the condo, brought enough coffee, cereal, and fruit for the first day's breakfast and then went grocery shopping at the local Safeway after a leisurely sipping coffee on the patio enjoying the warm, dry air in the morning. The snowbirds who rented the condo during the summer left odds and ends--a pair of crystal glasses for sipping whiskey, small floral vases, and a large cooler with their name on it. 

I haven't had much use for nostalgia in the past and was always more focused on what was ahead of me than what I had left behind. But this time something felt different. I enjoyed reminiscing with my husband about buying king crab legs to cook on the barbeque and driving to Hasting to rent a couple of DVDs. According to psychologists couples feel closer when they're sharing nostalgic memories. Nostalgia also has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety and make people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.

This exercise in nostalgia has motivated me to look forward to building new memories. It reminds me to take pleasures in everyday living and enjoy my family, friends, and my dog as they are now. It also taught me that my photostream is a reliable catalog of memories that reminds me how quickly time passes. I look at photos that seem as though they were taken last summer but are actually two years old, a further reminder to do things now instead of waiting for a better time. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

How to ask for help

Motu on her new bed
We have moved home to California. Singapore didn't work out the way I had hoped so now we are back. We are not in our house because it has been leased so while we are in the same city that is home we are staying in an apartment until the lease runs out on our home, which is still four months away. This is a period of time in our lives that we are asking friends and family for help. 

Be specific. Friends say "whatever you need" when they offer help. We needed help and asked for something specific, which in our case was borrowing a car. We sold our cars prior to moving to Singapore and when we arrived in Los Angeles we had nothing to drive. According to Gretchen Rubin you can be generous by taking when someone wants to help. People offer help when they want to give and by receiving that help you allow other person to experience the pleasure of giving. Still my husband has made minor repairs while using it to show our appreciation.

Play to people's strength. My parents love my dog and they have a truck to transport her plus a yard for her to roam. So we asked my parents to take our dog Motu for a couple of weeks because we couldn't get into our apartment for a few days after our arrival and our hotel didn't allow dogs. My parents graciously drove the six hours to meet us in Los Angeles to pick up Motu and take her to their house. They kept her for two weeks, had her bathed, bought her a bed and food and wouldn't accept reimbursement. Their response to my grateful thanks was that this is what parents do. Knowing that this was something my parents could and would do made it easier to ask. 

Know that asking for help is a sign of intimacy and closeness. While my dog was still at my parents I didn't want to be home for three days by myself without a car while my husband went out of town, so I stayed at our dear friends' house for two nights. They cooked me dinner, let me relax in their home, sit in their massage chair and provided all around good company for me when I needed it. They offered up their guest room for us if we were unsettled and all we had to do was take them up on it. 

Sometimes asking for help is more about paying it forward that reciprocation. Though I would gladly help my friends and offer the same help if they asked, I have difficulty asking for help. It may be because I think that what I am asking is a burden and that I don't have the right to ask. My reluctance to ask for help may be because I think I won't be able to reciprocate. What if I cannot return the favor? I still owe neighbors a home-cooked meal because I haven't reciprocated those invitations. 

Put your pride aside and ask for help. My independent nature is not comfortable with asking for help, so usually my husband asks and we are both the beneficiary of our friends' and family's goodwill. I am not comfortable asking until I see no other options. Like when I couldn't find a can opener the week we moved into our apartment so I walked around the halls of our building until I saw a neighbor and then asked him to use his can opener. I didn't let the fact that he was carrying a small child dissuade me from asking him. Still asking for help can be as sign of strength, not weakness because it allows others to share their gifts. Each of us has experienced the small thrill when asked for advice or to share our resources with others. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Skinny Shaming

Snack Time
My friend's pantry cupboards are less than full because most of her food is fresh and kept in the refrigerator. She serves her kids fruit, smoothies, or popcorn rather than fatty and salty prepackaged snacks from big box stores that fill the cupboards of most families. And in all fairness it was also the end of the week and she was due to go shopping. But while hosting ladies for lunch and showing off her newly remodeled kitchen one woman made a comment about the contents of the cupboards. 

"No wonder everyone is so skinny." The friend said, "You don't eat anything." 

There were six other ladies in the kitchen and the comment embarrassed my friend. It made her feel as though she wasn't taking care of her family. Both my friend and I wondered why this woman would think it was appropriate to criticize how she took care of her family, but it was use of the work "skinny" that made it sound like a criticism rather than an observation. Most of the time skinny is a desired goal, at least when applied to an individual. But when that label is attributed to a family it takes on a different meaning that makes it sound as though the family is deprived for the sake of vanity. 

Skinny used to be normal. My grandparents are dead so I don't have an example but if you were to look at the way the silent generation ate, you would see why they are not fat. They ate vegetables and had vegetable gardens, ate food not food products, and they ate less food. Eating this way today is seen as healthy in the extreme instead of normal. 

People may be skinny for a variety of reasons--they have trouble putting on weight and are naturally thin, they like the way skinny looks on them and choose to maintain low body fat, they are going through a temporary difficult period in their lives that has caused weight loss due to a reduced appetite. The skinny I am talking about is not underweight. It's unfat. But people may also be skinny because they are eating a balanced diet and getting adequate exercise or active enough throughout the day that they don't get fat. It's not magic and it's not an aberration. 

Skinny isn't shallow, it's healthy. I love the word skinny--skinny jeans, skinny latte, skinny bitch. I can't get enough. It always sounds fresh to my ears, but perhaps skinny can be a pejorative term sometimes so maybe lean is a better description. But maybe to my friend skinny sounded shallow because it was about her family. Had the friend described her family as "lean" the connotation would have been more healthy or athletic. After all this is an active family whose photo streams are dominated with pictures of kids at parks, bike rides, nature hikes, ski and snowboarding trips. Lean would sound as more like a level of fitness and less like deprivation for the sake of appearances. 

Why does a word that sounds like a compliment in so many circumstances (You look skinny in those jeans!) sound like a criticism when directed toward shopping and eating habits of the family? It's because in this case skinny sounds more like a judgement against parenting rather than an observation about how somebody looks? What about using the word "lean" to describe a family who is not chubby?

People feel justified criticizing skinny. This isn't exactly skinny shaming because nobody is pointing to a skinny person and suggesting they eat a burger. But there is a prevailing belief that people who are skinny are this way because they come by it naturally and there is no struggle involved. Whether it's struggling with the effort of a menu of healthy meals for your family or committing to the effort of cooking and preparing food and snacks instead of getting takeout and buying prepackaged foods there is a tremendous amount of discipline involved in creating healthy habits for your family. Criticism of that effort feels bad just as it would if someone critiqued a pantry for being too full of Costco ingredients. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Why Being an Expat is lonely

Green Corridor in Singapore

It's lonely being overseas when friends and family are at home. People told me this before I left for Singapore but I didn't really believe it would bother me. Making friends has always been easy for me and I am kind of a loner anyway, enjoying a lot of solo time or time just with my husband. But once work has been removed from my day and I am not interacting with colleagues, I realize how little interaction with friends I had prior to moving. Mostly because of both our jobs we didn't see each other all that often. And so I am in the habit of not planning activities to make friends and meet the friends I have made for additional activities. It makes me realize how little I did plan with friends at home and that other than the occasional dinner plan we didn't spend as much time together as I would probably have liked and that I will do better when I return home. I feel the loneliness when those that I've known for years are only accessible during a certain window of my day and only for a brief text or planned 

Social Media only helps a little with the feeling of isolation. Facebook is good for sharing pictures that you want everyone to see but because we all know most people share only the good stuff on Facebook or stuff they only want the whole world to see, it's not all that personal. It's pretty well documented that Facebook makes people feel lonely because our friends on Facebook are not all that close and that it provides a false sense of friendship. And while I am seeing what my friends are doing it's only a portion of those same people that I am having other meaningful exchanges with other than viewing their posts and exchanging comments. Besides, Girls called out Facebook messaging as being the lowest form of communication it's hard to get meaningful and personal via Facebook. I know I have a hierarchy of sharing information that starts with Instagram and being the most public, to Facebook friends, to an iPhoto stream that is invite only. This is me sharing my adventures and allows people to view and then comment, so the interaction is somewhat one sided and not conversational.

The 21 century apps only do so much. I have some ongoing dialogs via WhatsApp but it's still not the same as seeing people in person and being able to chat in real time or even scheduling lunch or a movie with those same connections. Also the time factor makes the WhatsApp message less urgent if I am sending a message while someone is sleeping.  

Skype is no substitute for a dinner party. We can't share a meal and a glass of wine and the spottiness that sometimes occurs do to bandwidth issues means we lose parts of the conversation. In Singapore we are sixteen hours ahead of California where my friends and family live so if I want to talk to them I need to plan a Skype date in advance, which entails figuring out what time they can do talk after their work day or coordinating an evening and afternoon time for them on the weekend that corresponds to our morning, which is usually 5 pm for them and 9 am for us. So right after drinking my coffee I am swapping out the grey tee that I wore to bed for something blue or pink that looks better on camera and putting on lip gloss, then practicing with the Photobooth app to make sure the angle of my Mac is so that nobody is looking up my nose or that the angle is so distorted it looks like I have a double chin.  

Emails help a little but they're not ongoing. I take time to send emails to people about what I am doing because I get so few emails that aren't marketing newsletters that when they reply with their own news it's enjoyable to read. A three or four paragraph email that someone has taken the time to craft is an enjoyable oasis when I find it in my inbox. If you write people emails they really do write back! It's an investment that is well worth the time it takes to write an email. 

Making connections is difficult. I have met a few very nice women with whom I enjoy having coffee and I have joined some meetups so that I can attend book clubs or walks around the island. Although having coffee and meeting for book clubs is a nice treat it doesn't add up to the volume of connections I am used to such as running into neighbors in my neighborhood or making plans to have dinner with friends. Friendships through meetup groups tend to flourish during weekday afternoons when our spouses are occupied with work making coffee and short outings a welcome distraction for a few hours. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Good Host

I am fortunate enough to have a guest room and guest bathroom for company. If this were not the case I don't think I would have guests. When I asked my friends what makes a good host one said that the guest bathroom they were using wasn't clean enough. So that's the first rule of having guests--clean your house if you want guests to return. 

Lion at Merlion Park in Singapore

Have a coffee pot. If you use a press because only one or two people in your house drink coffee, then have a coffee pot for company. You don't want to jump up every time someone wants a refill. Coffee pots are cheap and you can store yours in the garage like we have done, only taking it out when we have guests. 

My husband and I get up early in the morning and guests tend to sleep later so we get some quiet time alone before everybody wakes up. I am not one for talking in the morning for the most part. I just want to read Penelope Trunk and Gretchin Rubin, drink my coffee, and enjoy the lack of conversation. I worry that this makes me seem grumpy or unwelcoming, but I have to remind myself that I have no idea what my guests thinks about my being silent in the morning and they may like it. Is three hours of near silence too long? Don't think I just ignore everyone. I don't. I respond to questions but I am not offering up any new topics until after breakfast around 9 am or so. Until then my Mac gets all my love. 

Have a loose meal plan. Breakfast is always easy because we buy cereal, have homemade granola and fruit. I put all possible cereal and fruit options on the counter and let my guests prepare their bowls to help themselves unless we're making something like homemade pancakes or fruity broatmeal (oatmeal and barley). So that's taken care of. And then in the morning my husband and I have a discussion about what we'll do for lunch and dinner. We go day-by-day depending on what we're doing. But you have to decide if you're the kind of host who will prepare every meal for your guests or show them where everything is and let them prepare it. Usually I only have guests for 2-3 days so I prepare everything, buy all the groceries, and plan meals down to each snack. For longer stays I have learned that this isn't possible and it's better enable ([shudder] almost wrote empower) guests by showing them where everything is so they can eat breakfast when they want and eat what they want. 

Provide basic information. Lifehacker covers some of these things. Give guests your wifi password almost immediately when they walk in the door and show them where they can charge their devices. It seems to obvious to talk about clean towels so make sure there is air freshener in the bathroom they will use. We have a switch for the bathrooms that turns on the hot water, but we forgot to tell my mom so she took cold showers for three days. 

Explain your home's quirks. Luckily we live in a hot and humid environment so this wasn't horrible, but she's a trooper. Are their locks or handles in your house that are weird? If you are in a different country are you providing electrical converters? Does your shower work in an unconventional manner that will force your guests to use a million gallons of water waiting for water to get hot? Is there a step in your home where everyone trips? Did you provide a nightlight? Don't forget these little things. If you're doing airbnb check out liability coverage. 

Decide how much of your house your guests should see. Growing up I had a friend whose mom had not a junk drawer or junk closet but a junk room, The Office, used for holding gifts, wrapping paper, and everything else that didn't have a home. She was ashamed at having such a room and yelled whenever she found us searching for craft supplies in The Office. I am somewhat minimalist and I followed the KonMarie method a couple of months back for folding, purging and organizing, though I am still slacking on thanking my handbag as I put it in my closet at the end of the day. My guests can look in any drawer or closet because they are tidy. Not alphabetized soup can neat and tidy but organized. So I will say "look in the middle drawer of the console" for scissors because I don't care if they see the inside of any drawers or cupboards. 

But maybe they don't want to search. In that case leave the air freshener out on the bathroom sink. My friend provides sample sizes of shampoos, lotions, and razors in a guest basket so guests don't feel like they are opening private closets and medicine cabinets to find something. She is such good host she provides slippers so guests don't have to be barefoot. She has reading lamps on the nightstand that you don't have to get up and turn off from the main switch, which is especially useful for guests still reading books and not using the Kindle app for reading books and as a nightlight in a pinch.

Don't forget down time. Our guest room bed is also incredibly comfortable, which I think is a good start. Guests not getting a good night's sleep is a recipe for disaster. With a separate guest room and a comfortable bed it makes nap time a no-brainer and gives the host and guests some time to rest. If my guests are not nappers then my naps allows them time to read, take a walk, check email or social media or just be. My guests like to read on our deck and enjoy the afternoon breezes, maybe sipping a glass of wine or researching something they would like to see another day. It's a good time to catch up on conversation or just be together without talking. It's important to not schedule everything so tightly that there is no down time.