Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Friday, September 28, 2007

Complicated Families


Complicated or troubled families are a heavy subject, but unfortunately all too universal. Here are some resources that offer hope for fractured families:
· -Family gatherings can be a dreaded occasion, sometimes for even not-so-complicated family members. Here’s an article on strategies to ease the strain.
· -Here is some very direct stuff: Options for Families with Drug Abusers.
· -I like this piece on how one woman kept sane through her creative efforts.
· -Codependency is not easy to define. Here’s a quick snapshot of some of its important aspects.
· Here’s a comfort: No One’s Family Is Normal!


Last week I wrote from my hotel room about simple vacations. I came home to remember I have quite a complicated extended family, one that is currently rife with serious problems. One family member in particular is very troubled, with drugs and mental illness at the forefront. There is a huge, dark ripple effect going out from this man. Maybe “ripple” is too mild: his effect feels more like an undertow.

Striving for simplicity often springs up when things get most complicated. I don’t just want to live my life, I want to love it. While I can’t feel this way every moment, striving to have a clear perspective and live by my true priorities has been a helpful rebalancing tool. What is important to me? Family, home, creativity, contact with nature. Lately, more and more, my place in the world and how I can make a difference (at the risk of sounding like a pageant contestant) have been added to my list. All of these wholesome-sounding ideals feel threatened, in fact seem about to evaporate, when a severely off-balance person dominates the landscape.

I know I am not alone in this struggle. The more I talk about the issues that haunt my family, the more I meet people who have dealt with similar situations, some far worse than ours.

I found an inspiring quote for one of my recent blogs, and credited Melody Beattie. I couldn’t figure out why her name rang such a bell. Now I know. Her bestseller from 1987, Codependent No More, made its way back into my life with precision timing. She writes, Many of us have been trying to cope with outrageous circumstances, and these efforts have been both admirable and heroic….However, these self-protective devices may have outgrown their usefulness. You know codependence (aka feeling responsible for things you can’t control) is a bad thing when Melody Beattie writes a whole section called The Basics of Self Care.

It is a relief to be reminded that you can’t save everyone. In fact, you can’t save anyone from their emotional demons, other than yourself. I am relearning this self-care thing, and feel so proud. I called the troubled arm of the family and did not get overly involved. I took a walk. I saw a friend. I did not get sucked into the undertow of drug dependency and mental illness.

Undertows are strong. I Googled ocean undertows, and common wisdom says that it does no good to fight them. You free yourself by staying calm, calm even while in the vortex, swimming to shore as soon as you are free. The undertow may take you for a ride, but if you wait, watching the shore, it will release you. And how good it feels to be back on the shore at this moment.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

In Praise of Simple Vacations

Note to readers: This is a late post, as the week following my weekend away was super stressful. Note to self: grab those mini-vacations when you can!
One of the tricks in planning a getaway is making sure your travel plans stay as simple as possible. Here are some links on the importance of vacations, as well as practical strategies for keeping things simple:

-True magazine offers some thoughts on curing "vacation deficit disorder" in the healthiest way possible.

-Here's Lonely Planet's take on packing, including some useful tips for foreign travel.

-Here are a fellow blogger's thoughts on vacation, in the "take back your time" vein.

-Yet more thoughts on taking back your time--with some sobering statistics on the great American unrest.

-A vacationer fresh from Hawaii penned these helpful suggestions.

-I like this take on bringing vacation attitudes home.


I am writing from Kent, CT, which means we finally got a family weekend away. Why Kent? We had strict criteria: we needed a place less than 2 hours away, immersed in nature, and with a good village for strolling and snacking. My vote for Kent is swayed by the 3 bookstores (if you count the library’s expansive, every-weekend, outdoor book sale) and the local parks. We spent Saturday afternoon at Bull’s Bridge, climbing down enormous, water-molded rocks to the bottom of a waterfall’s cascade. We walked a short arm of the Appalachian Trail there. Second to that was the simple moment of Gavin delighting in the oversized bubble wands that the toy store leaves outside. It was clear he appreciated the bubbles more than the toy we had just bought him.

Gavin has no memory of being here, but I recall him toddling around all of these places during an earlier day trip. I marvel at how much he has grown, climbing large boulders with ease and much better at mastering bubbles, or sitting through a restaurant meal. Sunday is stretched before us. We will probably do a light hike at Kent Falls, maybe check out the local train museum, and still have plenty of time to meander home.

Our attempt to plan a simple getaway was almost comedic. We hadn’t traveled in so long and were paralyzed by the array of choices. Tom always votes for Woodstock, NY, also a delight but too far for our traveling after work purposes. He also voted for a camping cabin or a pop-up trailer rental, both great ideas when you have more time to plan and pack cooking gear, sleeping linens, food, etc. I felt a little guilty countering some of Tom’s earlier ideas, but I knew we would all benefit from a place that we could get to early, leave late, and for which only a suitcase was required. It also helps that there is not too much to do in the village of Kent. Several interesting stores, some tempting coffee and confection stops, but not the jam-packed tourist trap sort of place. This helped us avoid pounding the pavement to shop, an old habit that sometimes eats away at our time and energy (not to mention our money!).

I turned 40 last week, and hope this new decade will be one of wise decisions. My selectivity with our trip reminded me of another revelation I had recently. I realized that my passion for writing has me running in circles. I get tons of daily e-mails on freelance markets, for example, but have no time to pursue them. I am overwhelmed by possibilities. This doesn’t mean I’ll give up on my writing; it just means I’ll be more realistic in what I entertain and pursue. I’ll subscribe to less e-mail lists. Until 2008, my House Party Discussion Guide (to be part of the Get Satisfied Web site), online writing class, and 3 or 4 well-chosen essay submissions will more than fill my plate. When you consider that my plate also contains freelance medical writing and the usual regular job and family needs, that’s a large enough helping.

All the right passions can drive less than wise decisions. Our love for camping could have had us tangled in gear on this short, precious weekend, and our love for several, much farther away towns could have left us exhausted from our highway driving time. It helped to think about what we really needed: rest, ease, moving slowly. For Tom and me, lovers of adventure, it’s been hard to recognize that the spontaneous 3 or 4 hour drives of our youth, like driving from New York to Pennsylvania for a late night coffee, no longer fit into our lifestyle. But our reward for this recognition is feeling relaxed this Sunday morning. Tom is sleeping in, an almost unheard of phenomenon. Gavin is watching PBS cartoons while I type. I slept from 8:30 until 6 last night, a near miracle for my increasingly insomniac self. We’ll greet the day in a fresh place, end it in a familiar place, and savor all of that time in between.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Short-Term Sacrifice, Long-Term Peace


  • -Here’s an insightful article from Jugglezine on the benefits of voluntary simplicity. One outlook on sacrifice here: happiness as the yardstick of success (and well worth some sacrifices).
  • -Considering making your family a one-paycheck enterprise? It may be less of a financial loss than it seems at first glance. This online calculator is designed to figure real earnings (eg, what’s left after expenses that typify double-income families: child care, meals out, etc).
  • -More than once I have run into usability design sites (a subject I know next to nothing about) that talk about simplicity from a more technical perspective. Following a long list of intriguing simplicity quotes, this author includes Edward de Bono’s 10 rules for simplicity. They translate beautifully from design to life design!
  • -Jordan Cooper, a fellow blogger, writes about needless spending with great perspective, informed by the contrast of work in a homeless shelter and life with affluent friends.
  • -Duane Elgin has had a lot to say on matters like this. Here, an interview where he notes a new perspective that has grown in the last decade: I'm here as more than just a consumer to be entertained; I'm here as a soulful being who wants to grow. He also recognizes that Little changes can accumulate into a tidal wave of change!


It was a week of small sacrifices: I took a pay cut, transitioned away from managing, oriented the new manager, adjusted to the technical challenges of telecommuting, squeezed in e-mails to my new freelance prospects and writing classmates, waited for the school bus with Gavin while my mind raced ahead of me.

I had to ask myself, during this stressful week, was it all worth it? The philosophy I’ve developed on day-to-day sacrifices is the same philosophy I developed about childbirth. It wasn’t the pain itself that felt unbearable, it was the prospect of enduring pain. I was blessed with a remarkably short labor – by the time I considered an epidural Gavin had already emerged partway. But I immediately understood why most women go for the medicine: if no one can tell you how long the pain will last, it’s hard to bear. Great case in point: a rare time when Tom and I managed to save some real money. There’s nothing like finding out you are pregnant to make you finally opt in for homemade meals, cancel that bedroom set you ordered, and mull over every dollar’s best use. But I doubt I could have sustained that über-frugal mentality for more than 8 months!

Many of us are better sprinters than we are long-distance runners, and there’s a very human psychology to this. Short pushes, like labor and delivery, can be managed, especially if we know there’s a good outcome on the other side (again, like labor!). The scrambled, messy week I just pushed through will lead, I hope, to a less stressful work life in the long run, a well-informed new manager, new work that fills some of the gap of a diminished salary, a fresh start with my beloved book.

The trick, of course, is knowing when the small sacrifices tip the balance and add up to one big stressful schedule. How many small yeses add up to being overcommitted and under-rested? I’ve started to set small anti-deadlines: no more freelance work until mid-month, no weekend plans until I feel more rested, no major household chores until I‘ve finally had some time alone. It’s also helped to really know my lasting priorities: I’m moonlighting now so I can afford to freelance full time later; I’m squeezing in that writing class so I can resume the nourishing journey that is my (abandoned) book; I’m returning to church and its annual “Rally Day” picnic because my family and spiritual sides feel malnourished of late. I’m turning 40 this week, and the gift I’ve asked for is a weekend day to just write. There’s no possession that would mean more to me than this gift of creative time, a space for pursuing my highest passion.

In my quest for simplicity, sometimes my short-term life becomes more complicated! Our Friday family dinner out and the long, lazy stroll afterwards felt like a celebration: I pushed through, and now I can relax a bit (or more than a bit: the Chianti went right to my head!). Yes, this time my stressful week seemed worth it. Short-term complexity, long-term simplicity? I hope so.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Coming up for Air


Work-life balance can be more than a corporate buzzword (see Prose below). Here are some links that focus on flexibility in your work life:

-My own state’s Department of Transportation hosts an information-packed site on telecommuting.
-Here’s a quick WebMD primer on work-life balance strategies
-This Canadian site has some great FAQs on the topic.
-Here’s the Mayo clinic’s take on the subject.
-Here’s a free self assessment on work-life balance. There’s no scoring sheet, but it seems the higher the number, the more “imbalanced” you are!
-Get Satisfied, the anthology I'm to be published in this fall, includes several stories on how people reframed their perspectives on/approaches to work. Here's the table of contents.


Last week, I did something I had never done before. I demoted myself. And I took back some of my time. I’m going from manager to just plain writer, and I will work from home most of the time.

I accepted a manager position over a year ago, and I didn’t listen to my gut (when will I ever learn?). I have often managed, I’m told quite well, but never really enjoyed it (except when I got to approve a raise!). Managing takes me away from writing and research, which I do and enjoy best. I also had to admit to myself that, above and beyond the stresses of managing, my quality of life has been withering on the vine. The pace of my job often feels relentless when mixed with the other unavoidable stresses in my life.

It was time to employ some survival tactics. I looked into a host of other jobs, not really looking forward to the transition of a new place with new people, new processes. I like it where I work. The people are kind and thoughtful, and nearly everyone has a sense of humor.

I have to thank Jennifer, a mom I met on the Essex playground. It turns out she is a human resources consultant, and while Gavin and Alexander played she gave me a “free consult”: Why don’t you see what you can work out where you are? If they value you, they may be willing to talk.

I took a chance and laid my cards on the table with my boss. It turns out that I work in a place where work-life balance is more than a buzzword, and I’ve since thanked several managers (including my boss of course!) for supporting my wish to shift gears. I’m the first one to work from home to this extent.

In thinking about how much I wanted a change, I had to avoid thinking in black and white. I went from thoughts of leaving altogether, to working from home full time, to, finally, a compromise that just might work for everybody. Only time will tell, but of course I'm determined to prove that this work-from-home thing not only works,but makes me even more efficient.

What does the change mean for me? Less money, more peace. Turning away from corporate ambition and towards the things that make me happy: my writing, my family my home. No more employee evaluations. Fewer weighty decisions. A few more days in jeans and flip flops. A sigh of relief.

I think the money thing will be okay. There will be less dry cleaning, less gas guzzling, more time most mornings (and don’t they tell us that time is money?). I will recover the time I normally spend assembling a “business casual” outfit, drying my hair, applying makeup, packing lunch, etc. There are smaller things, too, that may go a long way. Maybe I will finally plan for dinner—one of those simple economical steps that always gets lost in the morning rush out the door. Maybe I'll avoid some of that not-so-smooth coming home from work transition that seems to plague the pre-dinner hour.

As Gavin starts kindergarten (the same day I start my work from home schedule!), I start my own new chapter. Here’s to the shiny new blank books of back-to-school. Our pens (and crayons) are poised for interesting and hopeful stories.